Local agencies attempt to quell spike in catalytic converter theft

Abby Hoover
Managing Editor

The theft of catalytic converters is on the rise as the prices for precious metals found inside them remain high. Law enforcement agencies across the metro, the state and the nation are struggling to find a solution to this crime, which can be costly for car owners.

Catalytic converters serve to reduce pollution emissions. With no moving parts, it’s extremely rare that daily wear and tear on a vehicle would cause the catalytic converter to stop working and need to be replaced.

“It converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, and cleans up the gases, basically converts [carbon monoxide] to a more breathable gas,” said Terry Loos, owner of Seeburg Muffler in North Kansas City.

A driver will know if their catalytic converter has been stolen, Loos said. In the last year, Seeburg has seen anywhere from eight to 12 cars a day, and sometimes more that have had the catalytic converter stolen.

“It will be extremely loud, it goes from quiet to real loud,” Loos said. “All your exhaust goes through it before it goes through the muffler system. That quiets it down and they actually work as a muffler also to help quiet it down. Without it, it’s just straight open exhaust.”

Seeburg installs aftermarket converters that are designed for a specific vehicle, ranging from $250 up to around $400 to $500, but a factory or original equipment manufacturer (OEM) part would be four or five times that price.

Loos said Seeburg doesn’t buy used catalytic converters from anyone. He doesn’t personally know any shops that would, and it’s not good for the business.

“There are shops out there that will actually put a pipe in place of the converter, and that’s not legal to do so,” Loos said. “That’s all we do, so we don’t have any leeway. The drawback to not putting them back in is it’s bad on the car, you know, the motor doesn’t run right. It acts up up front, burns a lot of gas that way, and your car just didn’t run properly.”

He knows the prices of all the metals have gone up, and that’s what’s causing a surge in converter thefts.

“You used to only get 15 to 40 bucks for a converter,” Loos said. “It wasn’t worth their time, but now they get anywhere from 50 bucks up to $200, some of them even more for a converter, so that tempts a lot more people to go out and take them.”

He estimates, using a cordless battery powered reciprocating saw with a brand new blade, a converter could probably be cut off in a minute and a half to two minutes.

“Some of them, it takes a lot longer, and then it depends on how many converters are on the car too, and where they’re at,” Loos said. “You know, people do it in the middle of a busy parking lot in the middle of the day and they’ll knock it out. Two minutes and you’re done and gone.”

Loos recalled a story he heard about a driver sitting in a bread delivery truck in a parking lot, which was running, and someone tried to steal the converter out from under him.

“People are brave, mostly they’re stupid, and I get remarks from people all the time that it’s crack-heads and drug heads doing it, you know, that used to be more of the case,” Loos said. “But now with the times like they are, people not working, they talk about it, more people need money and they hear how easy it is. [Law enforcement] really needs to go after the people who buy the converters. The people stealing them are bad, but the people who are buying them are twice as bad.”

Buyers know they’re stolen, Loos said, but they keep purchasing them.
“It’s all money to them because they get twice the amount of money,” Loos said. “They give this guy that just stole this converter 40 bucks, and they turn around and get 80 bucks for it. They didn’t do nothing.”

With so few places to melt them down and extract the precious metals, Loos thinks that is where regulation should start. Seeburg has done business with a reliable smelter for over 30 years.

“He doesn’t go around buying from people he doesn’t know, he buys them from the shops itself,” Loos said. “I have calls, three, four times a week, somebody calling wants to know if I have any converters to sell.”

He said most buyers are from out of state, and has noticed that many are from Chicago or Arkansas, which makes them harder to catch.

“These guys are starting to carry jacks around with them and they’ll jack [the cars] up,” Loos said. “Actually, two years ago we had a guy here in Kansas City that was jacking up a Prius, stealing a converter, and it fell off the jack and killed him. He died trying to steal a converter because he jacked it up and he didn’t have it on right, and he was in a hurry doing it.”

Loos recommends parking in a busy, well-lit place. While aftermarket cages might slow thieves down, they can still cut them off with the same tool. He has a couple aftermarket clamps hanging on the wall of his shop, cut to pieces by thieves who still stole the converters.

“Installing a skid plate that covers up the hole underneath of the front of the car, if they can’t get to the front of the converter to cut it off, they’ll move on to somebody else because they ain’t got time to cut through all that there,” Loos said. “A skid plate seems to be the best bet in deterring theft. It doesn’t have to cover the whole underneath of the car, just so long as they can’t get to the front of the converter or anywhere on the pipes, anywhere in the front of it to cut it.”

Thieves are after the varying amounts of platinum, palladium and rhodium – palladium group metals (PGM) – found inside converters, which sit before the muffler on the underside of vehicles.

According to an Auto Theft Prevention Authority Analyst Working Group newsletter, palladium was worth about $500 an ounce five years ago, but hit $2,875/ounce in 2020. Rhodium was $640 an ounce five years ago, but skyrocketed all the way up to $21,900 an ounce recently – nearly 12 times the price of gold.

“Internationally, the theft of catalytic converters has been curtailed through the use of prevention and enforcement measures; however, in the United States, almost every state is handicapped in their investigative methods because catalytic converters do not contain any markings that would link them back to the car they were once attached,” the newsletter read. “That must be addressed sooner than later, either through legislation or through the elimination of converters.”

The theft of a catalytic converter is considered a low level property crime. While profits fluctuate based on the amount of precious metals inside, it is one of the easiest and most profitable auto parts to steal.

Catalytic converters range in size and quantity depending on the vehicle. Pickup trucks are easy targets because they are often lifted enough that thieves don’t need to jack them up to steal the converter. Both a Dodge 2500 and a Kia Sedona have three catalytic converters.

Cars, light duty trucks and some motorcycles average a total of two to six grams of PGM, while large engine SUVs and trucks average between six and 30 grams. A Toyota Prius’ converter contains seven grams of PGM.

Aftermarket theft prevention options, including CatClamps and CAT Defenders, skid plates, under car alarms, and a variety of cages – both manufactured and homemade – are available. But once a converter is off the vehicle, there’s no way to trace it back. Because catalytic converters get so hot, the only long lasting way to mark them is with a thermal sticker, which comes with a specialized serial number.

Missouri State Highway Patrol Corporal Nate Bradley sits on a subcommittee on auto theft. He knows statistics are hard to decipher because when reported to law enforcement, it is classified as an auto part theft, and not separated out by specific type. However, when searching the KCPD database for “catalytic”, it appears about 200 times from 2016 to 2019. Searching 2020, Bradley found 794 results.

The converters are generally sold in bulk straight to smelters, auto wreckers, muffler shops and recyclers, but can often be found on Facebook Marketplace, Craig’s List, Offer Up and similar platforms.

Retired KCPD Sergeant Brian Karman has been investigating catalytic converter thefts for close to a year, but said locally the spike started about four months ago. He is part of an inter-state work group of law enforcement professionals collaborating to address the spike in auto part theft on both sides of the state line, something he calls “almost epidemic proportions.”

“Right now it’s just basically trying to ID all the players, just trying to find out where they’re selling these, I guess, ultimately even get legislation passed to criminalize buying these catalytic converters that – in my opinion – is purchasing stolen property,” Karman said. “It’s no different than buying a scrap car without a title. You know why somebody sells scrap cars without a title? Because it’s stolen. But, again, nobody cares because it’s a property crime.”

Karman said it is crucial that drivers report stolen catalytic converters to law enforcement so they can get an accurate position on the epidemic. He said once they have the numbers, it will hopefully be easier to get these crimes prosecuted, or to help pass legislation regulating it, which is in his opinion the only way to really slow it down until prices drop on the metals.

“Call your council people, call your representative, call your senator, call your United States senator,” Karman advised. “Report it no matter what, so we can get a good vision on how big of an epidemic it is.”

Missouri Rep. Don Mayhew (R-Crocker) proposed House Bill 1153, which would classify unlawfully acquiring a catalytic converter as a theft and mandate scrap metal dealers require proof sellers of catalytic converters are a “bona fide automobile repair shop” or sign an affidavit that the converter was lawfully acquired to be maintained for four years by the state Department of Public Safety.

Transactions involving catalytic converters must occur at the primary place of business of the scrap metal dealer, who must maintain the catalytic converter for five days “before modifying it in any way,” under HB 1153.

Also under Mayhew’s proposal, anyone unlawfully selling a catalytic converter will be charged with a class A misdemeanor. The charge is elevated to a class E felony if it’s the offenders’ second conviction within 10 years or if the offender was in unlawful possession of two or more catalytic converters.

For scrap metal dealers who unlawfully purchase catalytic converters, HB 1153 proposes a class B misdemeanor charge and business license revocation. The bill passed through the House Transportation Committee on March 31, 2021 after a March 24 hearing and awaits a third reading on the chamber floor.

Local police are also working to combat the rise of catalytic converter thefts throughout the metro area. From January 1 to February 17, 2021, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department (KCPD) received 266 reports of catalytic converters stolen from vehicles. That’s compared to 806 in all of 2020 and just 158 in all of 2019.

The nationwide spike in theft has law enforcement seeking creative solutions because nobody is safe. Cars new and old, businesses, churches, even police vehicles have been hit. Locally, the thefts are happening on both sides of the state line, in all makes and models of vehicles. The department even reported that the converter had been stolen from one of their KCPD vans.

KCPD has dedicated a working group of property crimes detectives to tackle the issue. They have joined members of numerous other state, county and local law enforcement agencies in Missouri and Kansas whose jurisdictions also are being hit hard by the thefts.

Missouri State Statute prohibits selling a catalytic converter without documentation to prove where the catalytic converter came from and how it was obtained (e.g. salvage title, proof of totaled vehicle). This means charges can be brought against the seller of the converter, as well as the purchaser.

KCPD recommends drivers install theft prevention devices, park in a safe place, mark the converter, report theft immediately and share security pictures or videos with law enforcement.

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