Thefts of car part quadruple across US

Thieves rip out catalytic converters for the precious metals within

A growing number of thieves have been stealing catalytic converters off cars amid the troubled US economy. They contain an array of precious metals, which fetch hundreds of dollars at the scrapyard, but can be dangerous to remove.

A catalytic converter can fetch as much as $300 thanks to the precious metals inside - platinum, palladium, and rhodium - whose value has skyrocketed over the past two years. While the cost of replacing the $1,000 emissions-controlling devices is usually covered by insurance, it puts the car owner on the sidelines while they wait for the part to arrive. Supply chain shortages mean that wait could be as long as six weeks.

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The popularity of such thefts has gone through the roof in recent years. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the number of catalytic converter thefts reported to insurance companies more than quadrupled between 2019 and 2020, increasing from 3,389 to 14,433. The organization’s president drew a direct link between the increase in thefts and the “times of crisis, limited resources, and disruption of the supply chain” represented by the government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ease of theft – thieves just need to crawl under the vehicle with a battery-operated reciprocating saw and cut through the metal attaching the part to the undercarriage – also makes it a low-effort, high-reward affair.

The sudden spike in catalytic converter thefts has spurred 10 states to tighten laws surrounding theft or purchase of the parts. South Carolina, Texas and Arkansas now require scrap metal buyers to maintain records of used catalytic converter purchases, including vehicle identification numbers, driver’s license information, and home address as well as proof of ownership.

North Carolina made theft of the devices a felony last month and requires businesses that buy them to maintain “detailed records” on those who sell to them; Virginia plans to follow suit this month. The small town of Lawrenceville, Virginia saw 15 church vans and 13 other vehicles stripped of their catalytic converters in the space of a few months. Some police departments are advising drivers to etch the parts with their license numbers or VINs in the hope of deterring theft, while others are offering rewards for tips leading to the arrests of chronic converter thieves.

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Beyond legal penalties, stealing catalytic converters carries another level of peril. Stories of men crushed to death by cars while trying to cut out the prize parts have made the news in Anaheim, California and Union County, North Carolina, with death usually coming when the jack used to hold up the car gives out.

New and used cars alike have become difficult to come by in the US due to supply chain shortages in the past two years, from the soaring price of steel to the inability to obtain the computer chips required for the increasingly complex engines new cars require. New and used parts are equally difficult to secure, adding to the allure of catalytic converters – stolen or otherwise.

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