For the past two years, law enforcement has tried to put the brakes on a worldwide wave of catalytic converter thefts.
It has remained a crime so rampant and costly, it has some afraid to park their vehicles in front of their own homes.
To the naked eye, a catalytic converter may look like an ordinary piece of auto machinery.
The device, which converts exhaust into less toxic byproducts, contains discs with small amounts of precious metals that have a large price tag. Those include platinum, palladium, rhodium, and others that hat can go for as high as $30,000 per ounce.
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They are often stolen in seconds by people using battery-powered saws.
Afterwards, vehicles have been left with a distinct sound so loud that it essentially renders them undrivable.
“You won't forget it, and you'll know it when you hear,” said Corey Meyer, mechanic at JFB Auto Repair & Tire in South Windsor, referring to the sound.
Last summer, Plainville small business owner Taj Semhi said he caught and confronted a pair of men with a rental truck who cut a catalytic converter from one of his vehicles on his property in broad daylight.
"It takes them at least less than one minute to cut it out. And that $1,500 down the drain,” Semhi said.
The video Semhi provided shows the suspects almost ran him over as they sped off.
“Right now, they have no fear," Semhi said.
Experts say thieves will often target cars with higher amounts of these rare metals in the catalytic converters, including the Toyota Prius and Honda CRV -- plus larger trucks, vans, and buses that have larger catalytic converters, and in some cases, more than one.
Bryony Chamberlain, vice president for school bus at DATTCO in New Britain, recounted one morning during the winter of 2021 when DATTCO found 40 of its school buses out of commission with their catalytic converters stolen.
“We had one of our locations where people came in at two in the morning. So far, we're up to 70 catalytic converters stolen the last year, and the cost that is about $100,000. That's not chump change,” Chamberlain said.
Since then, DATTCO has invested in security measures, including motion sensors, that have reduced catalytic converter thefts to near zero.
“But it is additional cost that we're having to incur. And it's not perfect. So, we still run some risk," Chamberlain added.
Not every homeowner or small businessperson can afford that kind of protection from catalytic converter thieves.
That has put pressure on lawmakers on both a national and state level to propose changes.
Indiana Congressman Jim Baird just introduced a bill that, among other things, would require auto manufacturers to etch a vehicle’s identification number, or “VIN” into its catalytic converter.
“I feel that there are enough instances of this, that we will get bipartisan support," Baird told NBC Connecticut Investigates.
Federal law already requires an identifying number on doors, bumpers, engines, and more.
“If law enforcement finds someone with those parts, then they can identify or they can trace that back to a VIN number. Without that, nothing really happens,” Baird said.
At this point, just a few automakers appear to be making moves toward marking catalytic converters, but it is not standard practice in the industry.
“Stamping a number on a catalytic converter doesn't appear to me to be that difficult. But I’m not in the auto manufacturing business. So, I’m willing to work with that. But it starts the process so that we can correct this”, Baird said.
Members of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) believe it is worth the wait.
“As long as they remain untraceable, it's going to -- it makes it almost impossible for us to do anything about that as an investigator. You have to believe that the auto manufacturers recognize this is a problem for their image as well, and they're going to need to do something to you know, protect the consumer," said IAATI member Joe Boche.
We asked The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an auto industry trade group, about Baird’s bill, known as the PART Act.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation told NBC Connecticut Investigates:
“The entities that purchase stolen catalytic converters are the logical first step in curtailing this criminal activity. We are reviewing the issue very closely and engaging with policymakers and law enforcement authorities concerning how legislation or other efforts to increase public awareness can help deter such criminal activity.”
NBC Connecticut Investigates drilled down on Connecticut auto recycling and scrap metal laws. There appear to be holes in the statutes when it comes to preventing catalytic converter theft:
- There are prohibitions on purchasing metal or cable that came from railroads, power lines, phone lines, even beer keg, but not catalytic converters
- Catalytic converter recycling is essentially a cash business; so, there’s no paper trail of traceable payments for officers investigating thefts
- Fines for getting caught with stolen catalytic converters are between $100 and $500 for auto recyclers, and less for scrap metal processors
Cheshire State Representative Liz Linehan said she wants to fund more officers to investigate crimes, including catalytic converter theft, and she wants to introduce legislation to slow the catalytic converter theft trade.
“Right now they've got us, but we're on to them. And we're gonna put forth legislation that makes it harder for them to do what they're doing now," Linehan said.
Linehan has proposed a bill that among other things, would:
- Create a more robust database to track catalytic converter sales
- Require people recycling catalytic converters get paid by check through the mail to create more traceable payments
- Require a five-day waiting period before the payment is sent out
“That's important because when you are stealing something, you want that immediate payment," Linehan said.
NBC Connecticut Investigates also spoke with the trade group representing scrap metal recyclers, known as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), about the proposed federal and state legislation targeting catalytic converter thieves. ISRI said in a statement:
"The industry is happy to see the Connecticut legislature discuss opportunities to crack down on catalytic converter theft. ISRI and our stakeholders partner at the federal and state levels to craft and enact meaningful legislation that attacks this crime at its core. We're already seeing tangible results. Connecticut's work on this issue should be robust and not limited to waiting periods and payment restrictions. ISRI hopes to partner with stakeholders in Connecticut to bring meaningful solutions and tools for law enforcement to apprehend and successfully prosecute the thieves."
It has always been all about speed with catalytic converter crimes, whether it’s getting the payment, or getting under a vehicle and stealing the goods.
That’s why beyond new laws, mechanics, and law enforcement have been looking for other ways to deter these thieves.
“I think the biggest thing with that is when the thief being underneath your car, unless they have some kind of spotter or something like that, they have no idea what's going on outside of their purview," Meyer said.
Meyer showed NBC Connecticut Investigates one of several security products you can have put on your catalytic converter to slow down catalytic converter criminals.
“A thief wants to get in and out pretty quickly. And if you do something to make it take longer than they're comfortable with? They're going to think twice about it,” Meyer said.
Couple that with another way to mark catalytic converters that has gained steam.
Cities across the U.S. have received grants to distribute stickers to put on catalytic converters that etch a unique serial number into it, that can be traced back to its VIN number.
The hope? These measures and others can help the public get a handle on a crime that is out of control and multiplying by the day.