While one would expect normal car thieves to target the stereo system or items from the glove compartment, the latest underbelly of vehicle theft stems from an item not within the car itself: catalytic converters.
The converter is a device used to reduce the toxicity of emissions from an internal combustion engine. They were first widely introduced in the mid-’70s to comply with tightening Environmental Protection Agency regulations on auto exhaust.
And now, largely due to trace amounts of precious metals within the converters – such as platinum, palladium or rhodium – thefts are on the rise.
Sergeant Glenn Glasgow of the Davis Police Department said law enforcement officials often deal with the thefts in waves, with the latest rash occurring in January.
“I wouldn’t be able to tell you as to why there are certain increases with reference to [catalytic converter thefts],” he said. “One week we have numerous thefts and another week we have none.”
Glasgow added that the thefts are especially hard to catch because of the converters’ location underneath a vehicle. Thieves who steal them at night are able to obtain the converters swiftly without being noticed by surrounding community members, he said.
Jay Aziz, owner of Davis Muffler & Hitch Center located at 2613 Second St., said that he has performed approximately 200 catalytic converter replacements within the past year.
Typically, converter thieves take the devices to local recycling centers in order to get money for the metals extracted at various boiling points, he said.
“This makes it easy for some crackhead to do that four to five minutes of work and that fuels their habit for a week or so,” Aziz said, noting resale value of the metals can approach $150 depending on the year of the vehicle.
That price however, does not come close to the reality theft victims must face, he said.
“The cost can run up to about $1,300 to replace the converters depending on how many were stolen [some cars may have up to four], the labor involved and how they were stolen,” Aziz said. “It all really depends on how nice the thief was feeling that day.”
Theft is most readily seen in Toyota pickup trucks because of their high ground clearance and easily removable converters, he said.
As air quality standards have risen, most cars have become equipped with additional converters that are composed of more expensive metals.
Aziz said theft of the converters should be “really obvious” to victims since the car becomes much louder upon ignition and will experience a large exhaust leak.
Sergeant Glasgow said victims can easily check to see if their converter is stolen by looking under their vehicle.
“If you follow the exhaust pipe of the muffler toward the engine and at about the center line of the vehicle there should be a catalytic converter,” he said. “There will be about a 3-foot gap between the front exhaust pipes leading to the engine and the back exhaust pipes leading to the rear exhaust.”
While Glasgow said the police department is in constant contact with local recycling centers to ensure that people are identified when turning in a converter, the thefts are still not easy to track down.
“It is difficult to catch these thieves especially without a witness, just because of how quickly they can obtain the property,” he said.
Glasgow said he encourages any victims of converter theft to report the crime to their local authorities. In addition, as a preventative measure, he supports neighborhoods that employ a watch program in order to “ensure the security of everybody’s property.”
CHINTAN DESAI can be reached at email@example.com.