Image: Catalytic converter
Creative Commons
An ordinary catalytic converter houses traces of the precious metals platinum, palladium and rhodium, making it a tempting target for thieves.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2/12/2008 4:38:52 PM ET 2008-02-12T21:38:52

As prices of precious metals skyrocket, thieves are targeting an obscure component of automotive exhaust systems in lightning thefts that can be accomplished in less than a minute, police and automotive experts say.

The component is the catalytic converter, which has been a mandatory part of exhaust systems since 1975. Police across the country say they have seen a dramatic rise in thefts of the components in recent months.

If you peer inside a used catalytic converter, nothing looks salvageable, much less valuable. But some of the gray gunk in there hides three expensive precious metals.

Catalytic converters have only small traces of the metals — platinum, palladium and rhodium — but there’s enough in them for a thief to resell stolen units for up to $200 apiece. Rhodium is among the most expensive metals on Earth, commanding as much as $6,000 an ounce on the open market.

Scrap dealers “are paying top dollar — platinum, palladium, rhodium inside of them — and they’re getting top dollar” on resale, said Jack Bell of North Shore Towing, which tows vehicles for the Evanston, Ill., police.

“The word spreads real quick about it, what they’re worth,” said Marty Antonelli of Marty’s Welding and Muffler Shop in Pittsburgh. “Everybody is on them now.”

Easy to find = easy to steal
The converters are inviting targets because they’re easy to grab. Mounted on the exterior undercarriage of vehicles, they can be removed in about a minute with any standard metal cutting tool. An enterprising thief in a crowded parking lot or garage can make off with enough converters to clear $2,000 or $3,000 in half an hour.

“These thieves are targeting shopping malls, school parking lots, busy business districts, and they are hitting these places in the daylight,” said Jennifer Krings, a spokeswoman for AAA. “A lot of the large passenger cars — SUVs, trucks and vans — have two, so those are a target.”

Anita Ortez returned to the parking lot after a short shopping run at a supermarket in DeSoto, Texas, to quickly learn that something was wrong with her SUV, a Toyota 4Runner.

“I turned it on, and it made a whoooom noise,” said Ortez, who said she was in the store for only about 20 minutes. “I jumped back thinking it was going to explode.”

She had the right idea. Besides rendering your exhaust system inoperable, a missing catalytic converter can be dangerous.

“On some of these cars, if that pipe gets cut off near some wiring or a fuel line or a gas tank —which in some cases are not shielded — there is a possibility of a fire and/or explosion,” said  David Eames of Pittman Automotive Service in Seattle.

Easy pickings in crowded lots
Ortez is just one of hundreds of victims in small-town DeSoto, population 37,000.

“This is a new thing for us,” DeSoto police Lt. Mike Sullivan said. “I think it’s starting to be a trend throughout the United States.”

The 4Runner is the most common target of thieves, said the Los Angeles Police Department, which issued a public warning about what it called a “new disturbing trend.” The 4Runner sits high off the ground, and its converter is attached with four bolts that are easily sawed off, making it simple for thieves to duck underneath, do their business and scoot.

The Kia Sportage, with a similar profile, is also popular, said Ron Baker, general manager of Spitzer Motors in Cleveland.

“They’re the easiest to get under and the easiest to remove,” Baker said.

But any vehicle made after 1975 is a potential target, said Kyle Evans, a spokesman for the Murfreesboro, Tenn., police.

“This is certainly something that could happen in someone’s driveway,” Evans said.

More commonly, it happens in parking lots and garages, where dozens of vehicles are lined up ripe for the plucking.

“I’ve heard of people going into apartment complexes in the middle of the night — just taking a handsaw, getting up under someone’s car and sawing it off,” said Tony Murtell, manager of U-Pull & Pay in Philadelphia. “They collect a few of them and take off somewhere to be recycled.”

“It’s happening everywhere now, you know,” said Trina Stutt, part-owner of Stutt’s Transmission Service in Pulaski, Tenn. “I am shocked at how fast this is growing.”

A hard crime to uncover
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a national trade association, said there were no national statistics on the pilferage of catalytic converters, which are generally lumped in with other auto-theft incidents. But it said it had seen a sharp rise in reports of thefts, and it urged scrap dealers to be suspicious of anyone walking in with a converter.

As it happens, there’s not much a recycler can do. Catalytic converters don’t have serial numbers, so they can’t be tracked, making a stolen converter all but impossible for a scrap dealer to identify.

“It’s very hard to trace that,” said Sgt. Chuck Zeissler of the Madison County, Ala., Sheriff’s Office. “You would have to go back and see what type of actual catalytic converter was placed on that vehicle and try and trace it back to the vehicle it was stolen off of.”

While police say drug addicts are most frequently found responsible for the thefts, the treasure in the exhaust system is rich enough that it can lure some surprising culprits.

In December, a former member of the Board of Aldermen in Arlington, Tenn., was arrested after Shelby County sheriff’s deputies found him tucked under a Buick station wagon. The man, co-owner of an auto parts store in town, was trying to steal catalytic converters from vehicles in the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s own impound lot, deputies said.

If catalytic converters are so valuable that people will actually try to steal them from the cops, what does that mean for everyday car owners?

“Unless you can garage your vehicle 24 hours a day, anyone can climb under your car and cut off the catalytic converter,” said Sgt. Bob Jagoe of the Baltimore County, Md., police auto theft team.

Harrisburg, Pa., police Chief Charles Kellar acknowledged: “There is not a lot you can do. You have to go to sleep eventually.”

NBC affiliates KHAS of Hastings, Neb.; KING of Seattle; KSND of San Diego; KXAN of Austin, Texas; WAFF of Huntsville, Ala.; WCAU of Philadelphia; WGAL of Lancaster, Pa.; WMAQ of Chicago; WPXI of Pittsburgh; and WSMV of Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.

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