2 Fort Myers men arrested in catalytic converter theft as three SWFL counties report rise
Two Fort Myers men posing as towing company workers are charged in the thefts of catalytic converters in Charlotte County.
Naples Daily News
When Chicago resident Sam Horvath set out for an early morning yoga class the day after the Fourth of July, she turned the ignition on her 2004 Honda CR-V and heard an eerily familiar noise.
Instead of a normal car engine, she heard what sounded like a lawnmower. Her heart sank. “Right away, I recognized the sound,” she said.
It was the sound of theft. It was the second time her catalytic converter had been stolen during the pandemic while her crossover was parked on the street, leaving her without a crucial and costly part that reduces engine noise and prevents harmful emissions.
It’s an age-old crime in the automotive era but one that has seen a resurgence during the pandemic as criminals pursue the valuable metals contained within the device to sell on the black market. All it takes is a saw and up to two minutes to snag a part that can fetch several hundred dollars in a hot market for rare metals.
Since the pandemic started, thefts of catalytic converters have soared nationwide as shortages of rare metals cause a spike in prices and make the devices an enticing target. The theft of the part leaves victims with extremely loud vehicles that can cost up to about $3,000 to fix, a repair often not covered by insurance. It is illegal to drive a car without a catalytic converter in some areas.
Used in vehicles to control engine emissions, catalytic converters change toxic gases and pollutants into water vapor and carbon monoxide. They are on a vehicle’s exhaust system between the engine and muffler.
Vehicles especially vulnerable to theft sit up high, such as SUVs, pickups and vans, as well as hybrids such as the Toyota Prius, according to the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), which combats fraud on behalf of the insurance industry.
Before the pandemic, catalytic converter thefts had become rare, averaging 108 per month in 2018, according to NICB data. That rose to 282 monthly in 2019 and spiked to 1,203 in 2020, increasing steadily as the year went on and reaching 2,347 in December.
Thieves stole nearly 26,000 of them from January through May 2021, research firm BeenVerified estimated, based on an assessment of NICB data and Google search reports. That would translate into a monthly average of more than 5,000.
It takes 30 seconds to two minutes for the average criminal to steal a catalytic converter using an electric saw, NICB CEO David Glawe said
“We’ve seen a stark increase because it’s relatively accessible to steal,” he said. “Then an unscrupulous recycling center or repair shop can sell these for anywhere from $150 to $300.” Thieves take a cut.
Ray Fisher, president of the Automotive Service Association, which represents repair shops, said the organization’s members abide by a code of ethics that prevents them from dealing with stolen catalytic converters. He acknowledged that some shops may not abide by those rules.
“Whenever there’s a bad apple, it spoils the whole bunch,” he said.
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He noted that repair shops themselves can become victims of catalytic converter thefts when thieves target their lots.
“Obviously, repair facilities try to do the best they can to protect the vehicle while it’s in their possession, but sometimes the real estate or provisions you have are not able to protect it,” Fisher said.
Metal prices spike
Theft of converters has become particularly lucrative during COVID-19 as prices soar for rare metals such as rhodium and palladium that are even scarcer because of pandemic-related production outages and supply chain slowdowns, Glawe said. Rhodium is used to make nitric acid, and palladium is used in dental fillings and jewelry.
The markets for both metals are hot. The price of rhodium spiked from $7,100 an ounce at the beginning of 2020 to $14,500 by the end of the year and has continued to surge in 2021, touching a high of $27,000 in March. Palladium jumped from $1,967 an ounce to $2,336 last year and reached $2,885 in May 2021. By comparison, gold’s price was $1,814 per ounce as of Tuesday morning.
“That makes (them) more valuable than gold at this point,” said Richard Gargan, a consumer advocate for BeenVerified who has studied the converter thefts. “People are parking the car outside, thinking it’s safe, but there’s a very valuable piece of precious metal on the underside where someone can saw it off.”
It can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to replace, depending on whether you buy an aftermarket or brand-name replacement; the size of the vehicle; and converter and labor costs. Insurance can help, but only if you have comprehensive coverage – and even then, the deductible and rate concerns scare many people off from making a claim. Liability coverage alone doesn’t cover the theft.
Catalytic Converter Thefts Up in Marion County
Catalytic converters contain trace amounts of precious metals, including platinum, palladium and rhodium. They are being stolen right out from underneath car owners.
Doug Engle, Ocala Star-Banner
When her catalytic converter was stolen most recently, Horvath had comprehensive coverage that meant she had to pay $250 for a repair that otherwise would’ve cost close to $2,000 at a shop in Chicago.
Scott Boehler’s insurance did not cover a replacement when the catalytic converter on his 2008 Toyota Prius was stolen in late 2020. Boehler, who travels the country working for an agricultural products distributor, was living in San Diego when the device was snatched from his car.
The repair, he said, would’ve cost about $3,000 for a brand-new part at a shop in Southern California.
“I work full time, I make decent money, but I don’t have (comprehensive) insurance,” he said. “They would’ve totaled the car.”
Since the vehicle wasn’t worth that much, he found someone who could install an aftermarket replacement for $300 instead of a brand-name replacement from Toyota. That can save money, but the quality may not be as good as the manufacturer’s part.
The catalytic converter of the Prius contains more rare metals to boost its efficiency.
California hit hard
In 2020, the top states for catalytic converter thefts were California, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas, according to the NICB.
Glawe, the NICB CEO, said legislation to require people who sell precious metals to provide their identification could help reduce theft. “Proactive policing” would also help, he said.
Black-market metal sellers are typically difficult to apprehend since the parts they trade cannot be easily distinguished or traced. But police have had some success tracking down converter thieves.
In Torrance, part of Los Angeles County, the police intensified their efforts to address the crime. In a three-week stretch in June, officers made 20 arrests in connection with catalytic converter thefts and recovered 87 of the devices.
Sgt. Mark Ponegalek said officers stationed themselves in unmarked vehicles in high-risk areas, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity such as double-parked vehicles.
Once a catalytic converter is stolen, finding its owner is extremely difficult since the devices don’t have serial numbers. It’s generally illegal to reinstall a catalytic converter once it’s removed.
“These aren’t typically returned,” Ponegalek said. “Once they get cut off, they’re useless.”
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