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Thefts of catalytic converters are skyrocketing. Here’s what lawmakers and law enforcement are doing about it

When Alan Bucknam’s daughter started the Toyota 4Runner to drive to school, it sounded like a Harley Davidson revving up.

“I figured either the muffler fell off or the catalytic converter was taken out,” Bucknam said.

I looked underneath the vehicle and saw two clean diagonal cuts on each end of where the catalytic converter should have been.

“They certainly knew what they were doing,” Bucknam said. “They took just what they needed.”

The theft that took place a couple of months ago on a cul de sac in Wheat Ridge is similar to those happening in neighborhoods across the Denver area, in parking lots of charitable organizations and apartments and even auto-body shops. Thieves are after the precious metals in the device that converts toxic emissions — hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides — into less harmful byproducts.

As the value of the metals has soared, so have the crimes in Colorado and nationwide. Thefts of catalytic converters in Colorado skyrocketed 5,091% from 2019 to 2021, according to the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority in the state Department of Public Safety. In 2019, there were 189 reports of converter thefts; 1,153mm 2020; and 9,811 in 2021.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau said claims filed for stolen catalytic converters shot up 325% from 2019 to 2020.

The sought-after metals in catalytic converters, which look like small mufflers and are about the size of a toaster, are rhodium, palladium, and platinum. According to Kitco Metals, the current prices per ounce for the metals are: $980, platinum; $2,114, palladium; and $15,400, rhodium.

In May 2021, rhodium was going for more than $25,000 an ounce.

Law enforcement, auto shops, AAA Colorado and other organizations are getting the word out and offering ways to deter thefts, such as etching identification numbers on the converter. Metal recycling businesses can sign up for alerts from law enforcement agencies about thefts.

Denver police have warned people that armed lookouts are a growing trend in thefts.

And the Colorado General Assembly approved bills Wednesday to make it tougher to sell and buy stolen catalytic converters. One bill will funnel money raised from fines to help theft victims and theft prevention programs. Sen. Joann Ginal, a Fort Collins Democrat and co-sponsor of the three related bills, said her focus is on the victims.

“This can happen to anybody at any time and cause them great financial issues, disrupting their lives. This has got to stop,” Ginal said.

Metal recyclers and other businesses that buy auto parts will have to check a national database to see if a catalytic converter was stolen under Senate Bill 22-009. Sellers will have to prove the converters are theirs or that they’re authorized to have the parts and buyers will have to include the proof in their records. Law enforcement will have more authority to investigate thefts.

Senate Bill 22-179 imposes penalties for tampering with vehicle emission-control systems. Under House Bill 22-1217, money from the fines will be used for Colorado State Patrol theft-prevention and tracking programs and to help theft victims and businesses.

A conference committee was working out differences between the House and Senate on a provision in SB 009 that would allow aftermarket replacements for stolen converters. Regulations passed in 2021 and modeled after California’s rules require a replacement be equipment from the original manufacturer or a new aftermarket converter that meets California’s standards.

The Colorado Independent Automobile Dealers Association asked Gov. Jared Polis in a letter Thursday to support allowing new catalytic converters that meet state emission standards even if they’re not certified by the California Air Resources Board. The CARB-certified converters are more expensive and are scarce because of supply-chain problems, the dealers’ association said.

Steve Horvath, owner of Jeno’s Auto Service Inc., places a sticker on the catalytic converter of a Toyota Tacoma on Thursday, May 5, 2022. Horvath has been placing the registration stickers on the auto assembly to help deter would-be thieves from cutting the part from a car. Each label has a unique registration number and is applied with a chemical that etches the serial into the metal of the converter even if tampered with.

The high cost of crime

“These aren’t cheap parts. Repair costs can range between $2,500 and $5,000, depending on the number of catalytic converters your vehicle has and the age of your vehicle,” said Skyler McKinley, AAA Colorado spokesman.

An aftermarket part, one not made by the original manufacturer, can cost as low as $500, McKinley said.

Sue Pippenger and her husband learned the hard way how pricey replacing a stolen converter is. Or, in their case, two converters. First, her 2008 Honda Element, parked in front of their Denver home, was hit in late 2020, before the requirement that replacements be original manufacturer parts.

“We still shelled out north of $1,000 for parts and labor. Our deductible is too high for an insurance claim to be worth it,” Pippenger said in an email.

Pippenger also spent $500 to install a shield around the converter to make it harder to saw it off. Then, about a month ago, someone cut out one of the two catalytic converters on her husband’s 2008 Toyota 4Runner. They had etched an ID number on it.

The retired couple didn’t report the second theft. “Just too weary,” Pippenger said. “I wish the police would do a sting and catch the thieves and those who are buying from them.”

With a grant from the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority, AAA Colorado has teamed up with auto shops it has approved to etch non-removable ID numbers on the converters, which don’t have serial numbers, and enter them in a database.

“Catalytic converter theft continues to be a problem and we need to talk about some structural reforms, like the legislature is doing,” McKinley said.

People can also get kits to apply ID numbers themselves by contacting the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority by email, cdps_catpa@state.co.us, or phone, 303-239-4560. A chemical used to apply a sticker etches a vehicle identification number into the metal, said Colorado State Patrol spokesman Sgt. Troy Kessler.

Thieves can get $50 to $250 per catalytic converter, Kessler said. Ones from hybrid vehicles fetch about $700 on the black market because the converters experience less wear, better sustaining the precious metals.

Kessler said criminals typically take the parts to a metal or auto-parts recycler or advertise them on the internet for private sales. It’s hard to link the converter to the seller or even prove it was stolen, I added.

“We might have a really great idea it was, especially when someone walks in with multiple converters that they want to recycle. But it all comes down to the proof and linking that converter to a case where it was reported stolen,” Kessler said.

Iron and Metals Inc., an industrial scrap recycler in Denver, no longer buys from the general public, just regular customers, said Scott Dassler, a company vice president. The seller must supply a vehicle identification number to go along with the converter, which the company records, he added.

And Iron and Metals doesn’t accept catalytic converters with saw marks, Dassler said. The company participates in the Scrap Theft Alert system, which allows law enforcement to alert the recycling industry about stolen auto parts, metals and other items.

“We had an unfortunate lady call in and say, ‘Look, someone stole my catalytic converter. Have you seen it?’” Dassler said. “She was a single mother and it cost her $5,300 to do the repair on her car.

“That was a huge deciding factor back in the early part of this. We’re not going to contribute to that kind of nonsense,” Dassler said.

Gone in 30 seconds

Jeno’s Auto Service in Littleton is one of the shops participating in AAA Colorado’s program to add ID numbers to catalytic converters. And it’s been one of the crime spree’s victims.

Steve Horvath, owner of Jeno's Auto...
Steve Horvath, owner of Jeno’s Auto Service Inc., places a sticker on the catalytic converter of a Toyota Tacoma on Thursday, May 5, 2022.

Shop owner Steve Horvath said about five converters have been stolen from cars on his lot in the past year. Most were customers’ cars. The thieves usually use battery-powered reciprocating saws.

“They’ve got pretty good blades that will cut right through that stuff, not like a knife through butter, but it goes pretty fast,” Horvath said.

A thief caught on a video camera at the shop was under the vehicle and gone in 30 seconds, he added.

Kessler with the State Patrol said it takes about 30 seconds to a minute to cut out a catalytic converter. While any vehicle is a potential target, it is easier for people to quickly maneuver under those that sit high from the ground: trucks, SUVs. Larger vehicles can have multiple converters.

“It’s an easy way for them to get money and further their other criminal activities, like drugs,” Kessler said.

The insurance industry is carefully tracking the rash of thefts.

“Converter thefts are hugely concerning to the insurance industry and the spikes we’re seeing across the country,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association.

Walker said it’s difficult to separate out the impact of the increase in converter thefts on the insurance premiums. She said hail damage is still a major driver in Colorado insurance higher costs.

However, car owners who don’t have comprehensive insurance coverage won’t be covered for the theft of their converter. Walker said if the car is older, the insurance company might decide it’s a total loss because of the high replacement expenses.

When someone stole his catalytic converter about a year ago, Travis Briles calculated it would cost about $2,500 to replace it. I have figured the insurance company would total his 2004 Honda Accord. After getting just a $500 offer for the car, I donated it to a public radio station.

Then, Briles encountered another pandemic-era trend: a shortage of computer chips for new cars. The value of used cars had jumped and he found out his Honda from him was auctioned for $2,500.

“I was pretty lucky in that I had money to buy another car,” said Briles, who lives in Boulder.

But he had been putting aside money for a down payment for a home and his new car took about two-thirds of the savings.

“So, the car I got was a hybrid and apparently the hybrids with low mileage are targeted,” Briles said. “It’s been a year and it seems OK. It hasn’t been stolen yet, but I’m pretty sure it will happen.”

For information on deterring catalytic converter thefts go to: AAA Colorado, https://www.colorado.aaa.com/catalytic; Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority, https://lockdownyourcar.org/catalytic-converter-theft/

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