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Catalytic converter thefts are sweeping Iowa and the nation. Here's why

Des Moines Register logo Des Moines Register 3/11/2021 Daniel Lathrop, Des Moines Register

Mot Fitzpatrick of Hilltop Tire Service in Des Moines has been working on and around cars for 25 years.

So far, he said, 2021 has stood out from the other 24 in one major regard: the number of people bringing in their cars and trucks for new catalytic converters.

It’s not a surge of faulty parts or some manufacturer’s recall. It’s the result of a massive surge in thefts of the smog-prevention devices. Thieves use battery-powered saws to cut them from the underside of vehicles.

a man sitting on a horse: Hilltop Tire Service Manager Tom Spencer, left, and Auto Technician Ed Vetick, right, install a Catalytic Converter anti-theft device on a pickup truck on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Des Moines, IA. A rise in the price of Palladium, a metal found in the converters, makes ones such as these tempting to these who sell them for about $100 each. A steel cable winds through clamps on each side of the catalytic converter and also around the frame to deter thieves but also secure the converter if they do try to cut around the anti-theft device. © Brian Powers/The Register Hilltop Tire Service Manager Tom Spencer, left, and Auto Technician Ed Vetick, right, install a Catalytic Converter anti-theft device on a pickup truck on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in Des Moines, IA. A rise in the price of Palladium, a metal found in the converters, makes ones such as these tempting to these who sell them for about $100 each. A steel cable winds through clamps on each side of the catalytic converter and also around the frame to deter thieves but also secure the converter if they do try to cut around the anti-theft device.

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“It’s so bad that we are doing protectors for them,” Fitzpatrick said.

And it’s not just the customers of Hilltop at its three metro locations.

Across the country, thefts of converters quadrupled in 2020. Police and auto shops across the country have reported that 2021 is on track to blow that away.

The reason is no mystery: supply and demand.

“It’s a crime of opportunity based on the price,” said David Glawe, head of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Glawe’s group identified more than 14,000 thefts of catalytic converters last year — up from about 3,400 the year before.

Driving up prices: An up to 3,000% increase in the cost of the precious metals the devices uses as catalysts to remove carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and other pollutants from auto exhaust.

Thefts are part of 'long-term criminal enterprise'

Authorities say the thieves are largely the same ones who steal scrap metal, often from empty buildings and construction sites. They sell the converters to unethical dealers who fence stolen scrap metal and auto parts.

“This is a long-term criminal enterprise that operates in most major metropolitan areas,” said Glawe, a former FBI agent and senior intelligence official in the Trump and Obama administrations who grew up in Davenport

 “It’s the same criminal conspiracy,” Glawe said. “It’s just tasking them at another target.”

Ironically, the rise in thefts increases the market for the stolen goods. Some auto body shops — knowingly or unknowingly — are buying the catalytic converters and reinstalling them on customers’ cars. In some cases, people who've had their converters stolen may be getting stolen replacements.

Glawe called it a hidden epidemic.

“Nobody looks under their car to see if they’re getting a new catalytic converter," he said.

Reports of spikes in such thefts have come from local police departments across Iowa as well as everywhere from Louisville to London — England, that is — since 2019.

West Des Moines alone has seen at least 30 such cases so far this year, police Sgt. Jason Heintz said, adding that it’s a problem faced by many local agencies.

“It appears to be occurring around the metro and not just isolated to West Des Moines,” he said.

Spikes have happened before, but this one could be the biggest

It’s not the first such spike.

“It’s kind of tied to the junk price of catalytic converters. The last 10 years there have been three different big spikes in them,” said Tom Spencer, another mechanic at Hilltop.

Still, this spike has the potential to be the biggest.

In January 2019, the National Insurance Crime Bureau identified 134 such thefts nationwide. In December of last year, there were more than 2,300. The bureau gathers statistics from the 1,400 insurance providers who are its members. No law enforcement agency specifically tracks this kind of theft separately — it's considered theft from an automobile.

Those numbers may dramatically understate the problem. The bureau learns of the cases mostly from comprehensive claims filed on drivers’ car insurance policies — and many people forgo that kind of coverage.

In fact, another major victim is salvage yards themselves.

“About three times a week they cut a hole in our fence,” said Tom Yaw, of Yaw’s Auto Salvage in Des Moines.

“It’s been going on for two years, and they probably nailed me for $100,000 in cats,” he said, using salvage yard shorthand for the converters.

Penalties involved are 'a slap on the wrist'

One major issue, according to law enforcement officials, experts and victims, is a lack of serious penalties attached to the crime. Those involved in buying and reselling the stolen auto parts are rarely caught.

Meanwhile, because stealing a catalytic converter doesn’t require breaking into a car, it carries a fairly minor misdemeanor theft charge.

“It’s safer than dealing drugs by far,” Glawe said.

Yaw, the salvage yard owner, noted the case of a local man who has been arrested several times on the same charge.

Wah Htoo, 30, of Des Moines, currently faces charges related to stealing a catalytic converter from another salvage yard. He has been the defendant in misdemeanor and felony cases more than 30 times and pleaded guilty in a separate Jasper County case last month.

He has pleaded not guilty in the latest case and is being held in Polk County Jail awaiting trial.

“All the police departments and courts do is give a slap on the wrist,” Yaw said.

More: Scams, ID theft, online shopping woes topped Iowans' rising fraud reports in 2020

Legislation possible to increase penalties

Iowa is one of at least 20 states weighing action to increase penalties.

Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, is author of one of two bills proposed this legislative session. While the bill did not move forward in the Legislature's recent "funnel" week, he said he is in conversations with the majority Republicans to hold hearings as soon as the next legislative session.

His bill would require those selling catalytic converters to provide documentation that they are licensed auto parts recyclers or the legitimate owners of the converters.

A similar bill by Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, would require purchasers to collect that documentation.

Both those bills create new misdemeanor offenses, but legislators in Hawaii have gone further.

A bill pending in the Legislature there would make the theft of a catalytic converter a felony carrying up to five years in prison.

Glawe said his group is tracking the legislation in Iowa and other states, and believes a crackdown is needed.

Which cars are targets, what can you do to deter theft?

It takes thieves only a few moments, possibly less than minute, to slip under a car and cut free a catalytic converter with a battery-powered reciprocating saw. The types of vehicles most popular with thieves: commercial vehicles with higher ground clearance and cars with dual exhaust — where they can get two converters for the price of one.

For salvage yard owners like Yaw, there may be little they can do other than try to beef up security.

For vehicle owners, however, there are concrete steps to take.

One is to install an anti-theft device, generally a kind of metal cage or a clamp, under the car.

While not foolproof, it makes the thefts far more difficult and time consuming.

“It’s definitely going to stop them where they aren’t going to want to,” said Fitzpatrick, of Hilltop.

Keeping cars and trucks inside a garage, when possible, is the best protection, experts agreed.

Drivers should also know that regular liability insurance coverage does not cover thefts, meaning owners need a comprehensive policy if they want to be protected.

Why do people steal catalytic converters? It's what's inside

While the thieves may fence a catalytic converter for a few hundred dollars, the cost to buy and install a new one can exceed $2,000.

Which gets to the prices of the metals involved. Catalytic converters use the elements rhodium, platinum and palladium. Two of those — rhodium and palladium — have risen above the price of gold.

The reasons are complicated. Both metals are largely mined in places where criminal organizations using forced labor control much of the supply and conspire to manipulate global prices, Glawe said.

Beyond that, the prices of precious metals usually surge during crises, and the pandemic has been no different.

With rhodium valued at more than $29,000 an ounce — up from less than $900 in 2017 — the cost to manufacture catalytic converters likely will continue to increase, driving up the cost of scrap converters.

Spencer, the mechanic, described it a different way.

“Thievery is thievery,” he said.

Daniel Lathrop is a staff writer on the Register's investigative team. Reach him at (319) 244-8873 or dlathrop@dmreg.com. Follow him at @lathropd on Twitter and facebook.com/lathropod.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Catalytic converter thefts are sweeping Iowa and the nation. Here's why

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