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Buyers Turn a Blind Eye to Stolen Catalytic Converters, Investigators Say

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In July, volunteers at the nonprofit Kids Against Hunger Bay Area heard a roaring noise when they tried to start their delivery vehicle -- its catalytic converter had been stolen.

“It sounded like a Sherman tank,” volunteer Doug Loskot recalled. 

The fix to the truck was covered by comprehensive insurance, but the nonprofit had to pay a deductible of $500. Loskot noted the organization, which primarily donates meals to orphanages in Haiti, could have provided 2,500 meals for that same amount.  

Since the start of the pandemic, law enforcement agencies all over the world, have reported an uptick in catalytic converter thefts. The converter is located underneath a car and limits exhaust emissions. Car owners can be forced to pay thousands of dollars to replace a stolen converter.

Several of the precious metals found inside converters have skyrocketed in price during the pandemic. 

A view of the "honeycomb" inside of a used catalytic converter at Precision Auto in Pleasanton. The "honeycomb" contains precious metals like Platinum, Palladium, and Rhodium. NBC Bay Area Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

In less than two minutes, thieves can saw off a car’s converter to cash in on the precious metals inside. 

Joseph Boche, who is a director with the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI), explained that stolen converters can sell for as little as $50 to as much as $1,600 on the black market.

“You go hit ten Priuses overnight, you just made eight grand,” Boche explained. “I mean, that's a lot more profitable than selling drugs and a whole lot less risk.”

His committee found stolen converters can easily be laundered by vehicle recyclers, processors, and smelters who face “little scrutiny” about what they are buying.

“It sounds like we have a lot of people turning a blind eye?” we asked Boche. 

“I think so,” Boche replied. 

In California, the state’s Business and Professions Code requires recyclers who buy used converters to keep records on the seller and the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of the car the converter came from. 

NBC Bay Area Responds asked seven state agencies what arm of the state is responsible for enforcing this part of the code. While some agencies, like DMV, can enforce the code in certain cases, we found that no single agency is tasked with it, although local law enforcement can, and sometimes does.

“I know when we come across these suspects it’s usually when we catch them transporting or leaving the scene of the crime” noted Sgt. Ray Kelly with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. 

A view from underneath a 2007 Toyota Prius that had its catalytic converter stolen. The Prius was a loaner vehicle at Precision Auto in Pleasanton and the shop owners say the cost to replace the converter with factory parts will be around $4,000 or $5,000. NBC Bay Area Photo/ Alyssa Goard.

We decided to test the state code ourselves and borrowed a used catalytic converter from a licensed auto parts store. Next, we contacted 10 different recyclers, auto shops, and junkyards. None of them offered to buy the converter. However, one individual junk hauler offered 70 bucks cash for the converter. We declined the offer. 

We also found lots of used converters in California for sale on eBay, Craigslist, and Facebook Marketplace, even though the state forbids used converters from being sold to anyone but qualified recyclers. We asked all three companies about those listings. Only eBay responded, saying that used converters on its site must be recertified or listed as scrap metal. 

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón believes that when it comes to the problem of catalytic converter thefts, “we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of it.”

Gascón wrote letters to Honda, Ford, Toyota, and General Motors this summer, asking them to sit down with his team to come up with solutions to prevent catalytic converter thefts.  He wants automakers to start placing identifying markings on converters. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires more than a dozen “high theft risk” parts on all cars to be labeled with the 17-digit VIN; the catalytic converter is not one of those parts. 

NBC Bay Area Consumer Investigator Chris Chmura explains how to mark or etch your car's catalytic converter.

“We've got a very warm reception from Honda and we're working with them,” Gascón said. “Disappointingly, GM and Ford and Toyota have not responded with the same desire.”

If automakers don’t make changes on their own, Gascón is prepared to push for state laws to force their hand. 

In the meantime, all the experts NBC Bay Area spoke with for this story agreed: the simplest way to protect your converter is parking in a garage.  If that’s not an option, try parking in a well-lit area with obvious cameras. 

You can also get your VIN etched into your converter, which would allow law enforcement to trace it back to you if it gets stolen.

A jagged edge on a Toyota Prius where someone stole the car's catalytic converter by sawing it off. Police departments say thieves can steal converters using tools you can find at a hardware store. NBC Bay Area Photo/ Alyssa Goard.
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