WKYT Investigates | A surge in stolen catalytic converters

The sheer scale of the crime might surprise you.
WKYT Investigates | A surge in stolen catalytic converters
Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 2:24 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - At the Don Franklin Auto Mall in Lexington, piles of paper sat on Mark Sawyer’s desk.

“That’s just this month,” he said, leafing through several sheets. But in a business based on sales, the papers are not contracts or invoices.

They are police reports.

Still, it is smaller than the stack of cash this company has had to shell out to address the problem: “Thieves,” Sawyer said with frustration - thieves who have stolen roughly four dozen catalytic converters from vehicles on their lot in the past six months.

Catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed across the country during the pandemic, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau:

  • from 108 per month on average in 2018
  • to 282 per month on average in 2019
  • to 1,203 per month on average in 2020.

In December, the latest month for which NICB data is readily available, more than 2,000 catalytic converters were reported stolen across the country.

[LEARN MORE | How a catalytic converter works]

Lexington Police Detective Cody McMillen has been busy investigating a number of catalytic converter thefts across the city in the same time frame.

“It was around November or December 2020 whenever I started seeing repeated catalytic converter investigations come across my desk,” he said, “to the point where obviously there’s a trend, there’s a pattern developing here.”

The pattern really began to take off as the values of the precious metals inside catalytic converters - platinum, palladium and rhodium - likewise began to surge.

“It’s an opportunistic crime,” David Glawe, President and CEO of NICB, said in a news release. “There is a clear connection between times of crisis, limited resources and disruption of the supply chain that drives investors towards these precious metals.”

In recent weeks, according to Money Metals Exchange, per-ounce prices of those metals have been at or near their peaks:

“I think until the larger issues of the supply and demand being met,” Detective McMilllen said, “I think there’s always going to be this need or this drive to steal converters for the metals within.”

A Lexington ordinance and state law require proof of ownership before a scrap yard or recycler will take a catalytic converter. That is why police say thieves are going elsewhere to sell them.

Police say it starts with the thief, who removes the catalytic converter often using a reciprocating saw. They find a secondhand buyer who purchases the converter at a discounted rate, then sells the converter, likely outside of Kentucky, police say, for the total value of the converter.

It is not hard to see that a hot market for it exists. Lots or individual converters can be found for sale on Facebook Marketplace, and some entire websites even post price lists of specific catalytic converters they are looking for, with promises to send a quote for yours in minutes.

“I think they only way to get to the end of this is for somebody to figure out how to make a catalytic converter that doesn’t cost so much money,” said Sawyer, the fixed operations director for the Don Franklin Automotive Group. “So hopefully the value would be so depreciated that it would be useless to steal.”

[MORE: WKYT Investigates]

Because for months now, it has been open season.

Sawyer says his company is out $150,000: More than half of that for security upgrades like better cameras (human-sensing and license plate capturing), brighter lights and new fencing around the back lot; the rest for repairs to the vehicles whose catalytic converters were stolen.

“It’s my obsession for the last three months,” Sawyer told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer. “It’s not a misdemeanor to me. It’s not a hundred-dollar theft. It’s costing every dealer tens of thousands of dollars, this epidemic that’s going on with this.”

But it is not just happening in car lots, parking lots or driveways. Sawyer says thieves stole six catalytic converters from a transporter full of brand new pickup trucks that had not even made it to the dealership yet.

All of it makes keeping inventory on their lots even more of a struggle right now for car dealers.

The steps Sawyer has taken at the dealership seem to be helping, he said. They even put trackers on some parts of cars that have been sitting on their lot.

“Some of these guys might already be caught and not know they’re caught,” Sawyer said.

Lexington Police have made some arrests in catalytic converter thefts across the city, which they say often results in a dip in the crimes before they begin to pick back up.

How to protect your car

Police say there are a few red flags to listen or look out for in your neighborhood, including:

  • Someone suspicious walking with a backpack or reciprocating saw at odd hours
  • Hearing a grinding noise in the middle of the night

Investigators say reporting even small things that seem out of place could give them the break they need to solve several catalytic converter cases.

A number of different tactics have been reported across the country to try to prevent someone from stealing your catalytic converter:

Police say one of the difficulties of investigating these crimes is linking a specific stolen catalytic converter to a specific vehicle, but, as Sawyer explained, the problem with the etching method (or even with painting) is that it is done on the outside of the converter. All the thief actually needs are the materials inside - the outside can be dumped. However, it could alert a scrap dealer that the converter was stolen.

Experts say the best way may be to make it harder for the thief to steal - such as adding rebar as the California mechanic is offering to his customers, welding the converter to the car’s frame, or with commercially made devices, like Cat Clamp, that can be purchased and act as a cage around the converter.

Lexington Police Detective McMillen says he has not yet seen a theft case from someone using a cage.

That, along with the tips below from the NICB, could help prevent you from becoming the next victim.

The NICB recommends vehicle owners:

  • Install a catalytic converter anti-theft device. These are available from various manufacturers and can provide a level of security from theft.
  • Park fleet vehicles in an enclosed and secured area that is well lit, locked, and alarmed.
  • Park personal vehicles in a garage. If not possible and vehicles must be parked in a driveway, consider installing motion sensor security lights. While lights may not provide complete security, it may make some thieves think twice, making them leave the area and your vehicle untouched.
  • Call local law enforcement and your insurer should you become the victim of a catalytic converter theft.

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