A treasure chest of valuable metals that sits underneath every car has sparked a rash of thefts. Now legislators in Washington and statehouses are fighting back.
Thefts of catalytic converters — an antipollution car part laden with platinum, palladium and rhodium — have exploded since the pandemic began, fueled by a surge in the value of those metals. Thieves made off with 12 times as many catalytic converters, which sit exposed underneath most cars, in 2021 as they did in 2019, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an organization that tracks these thefts.
More than three dozen states have introduced legislation to combat catalytic converter theft, according to NICB’s converter theft legislation tracker, with 20 states enacting the bills into law.
In Washington, D.C., legislators in the House introduced a bill in January to tackle the thefts. The Preventing Auto Recycling Theft Act would require new vehicles stamp VIN numbers on catalytic converters, codify federal penalties for stealing the part and require record-keeping for those who are buying and selling converters.
Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind., who introduced the bill, told NBC News in an email that these steps will discourage black market sales and give law enforcement more tools to handle the thiefs.
The bill, with a bipartisan array of co-sponsors, was sent to two committees shortly after its introduction. Baird said he’s hopeful the bill will make it to the House floor and that he’s taking the steps to “move the needle in the right direction.”
“Americans have enough to worry about,” Baird said, “Spending their hard-earned paycheck to replace a stolen car part shouldn’t be one of them.”
Driving without a converter is illegal in some states, and replacing one is expensive. David Glawe, NICB president and CEO, pegged the price of a replacement catalytic converter at about $3,000, up from $1,000 in recent years.
“Crime’s a business, and business is really good in this space,” said Glawe, whose organization works to combat insurance fraud and crime. “There’s a lot of money to be made. And there’s very little deterrent.”
The raw materials in the converters fetch as much as $240 from scrap dealers, according to Baird. The value of these metals increased as much as fourfold during the pandemic.
And for a crime that takes less than a minute to execute, and can be committed with a $100 saw bought at any Home Depot, the rewards outweigh the risks.
Catalytic converter thefts are property crimes, which means those caught may get little more than a slap on the wrist, Glawe said. In Denver, that means criminals caught stealing converters will face misdemeanor charges if the converter is worth less than $2,000 or felony charges if it’s worth more.
So far this year 12 people have been arrested, a Denver Police Department spokesperson said.
Isabella Carlson’s catalytic converter was stolen in broad daylight from the parking lot of the Wisconsin school her husband attends. After the couple got their car back — with an anti-theft cage installed around the converter — her husband noticed there were people holding power tools examining cars in that same parking lot, she said.
“The police just said, ‘Yeah, this is happening a lot,’” Carlson said.
Carlson, who lives in Waukesha, lost her job at a grocery store as a result of the theft. “I couldn’t get around,” she said. “My husband couldn’t get to school some days.”
The NICB advises car owners to park in garages if possible and get a cage installed around their car’s converter, like the one Carlson had installed on her Hyundai Tucson.
Some of these thefts have turned tragic: In Houston, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy died after a shootout with people who were trying to steal his truck’s catalytic converter, authorities said in April.
Nick Leppert moved to Chicago from California last month and had been there no more than 72 hours when the catalytic converter was stolen from their Toyota Prius.
Leppert, whose pronouns are they and them, didn’t discover the theft until they got into the car and turned it on. Leppert knew the loud, growling sound — this was the third time in 10 months that the part had been stolen from their car.
“I was filled with despair, like, not again,” Leppert said. “This is a ridiculous amount of times for it to happen to one person.”
Leppert drives one of the cars most targeted for its converters. Carfax data shows Priuses are the sixth-most-stolen-from autos. Ford F-series trucks are No. 1.
Leppert, who moved to Chicago to be with their partner, said they’re going to become a one-car household.
“I’m only getting it fixed so that I can sell my car because I don’t want to go through this again,” Leppert said.