Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bill into law last week that aims to discourage someone from crawling under your car or truck and cutting off part of the exhaust system.
Catalytic converters — muffler-shaped devices that change carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and other toxic gases into less-harmful ones — have become a favorite target of thieves. That’s because prices for the metals that make the converters work — platinum, palladium and rhodium — have gone up significantly in recent years.
“The catalytic converter is becoming more and more popular to steal due to the value of the precious metals inside,” says Bryce Merold, a detective with the Raleigh Police Department.
Catalytic converter thefts nationwide grew from 108 a month on average in 2018 to 282 a month in 2019 and 1,203 a month last year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Replacing one, the organization says, can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000.
In Cary, catalytic converter thefts began to rise last September, said police Lt. John Reeves, and have remained high. After handling 39 theft reports in 2020, Cary police have already responded to 70 so far this year, Reeves said.
Thieves will take catalytic converters where they can find them. A string of 37 thefts in Raleigh last fall targeted vehicles in apartment complexes, driveways, business parking lots and auto repair shops throughout the city, according to police.
The Toyota Prius is a favored target because of its robust pollution control system. That was the case early this year in Durham, where the number of reported thefts has already exceeded last year’s total of 228, according to spokeswoman Kammie Michael.
“But lately there has been an increase in the number of catalytic converter thefts from church vans and commercial vehicles,” Michael wrote in an email. “Investigators believe these vehicles are being targeted because they are higher off the ground and it is easier to get under them to remove the catalytic converters.”
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel had a catalytic converter stolen from his wife’s Prius while it was parked in their driveway on Carolina Avenue last year.
“We had been hearing about it on our neighborhood listerv, that there had been some thefts of catalytic converters,” Schewel said. “And we wondered if it was going to happen.”
The repair shop that replaced the converter told Schewel it had seen a “huge increase” in cars with missing converters. It then put a heavy chain around the replacement, to try to dissuade anyone from stealing it again.
“Haven’t had a problem since then,” he said.
The new state law, which takes effect Dec. 1, would make it a felony to steal a catalytic converter and would limit who is allowed to possess one that has been removed from a car or truck. That includes people who work for licensed vehicle dealers, repair shops or metals recyclers and scrapyards or people who can show they’re replacing their own.
Everyone else found with a converter will be presumed to have stolen it.
How to discourage converter thefts
Groups that represent police chiefs and sheriffs supported the bill, which passed the General Assembly without opposition. But law enforcement officers and insurance companies say there are steps people can take on their own to reduce the risk their catalytic converter will be stolen. They include:
▪ Park in a garage or, in the case of fleet vehicles, in a secured, fenced-in area.
▪ No garage? Park in a well-lit place, within view of a security camera, if possible. Consider installing a motion-sensitive security light, which may be just enough to scare off a would-be thief.
▪ Have your vehicle’s identification number (VIN) or license plate number engraved on the catalytic converter case where it can be seen. The numbers might discourage a thief or make it easier to catch one later.
▪ Consider installing an anti-theft device, along the lines of Schewel’s chain. Others are essentially steel cages, shields or cables that provide an extra layer of metal for someone to get through and can cost several hundred dollars installed.
▪ Place a rubber copperhead snake under your car or truck. In the half-light of night, that may be enough to get a would-be thief to move on.
Law also limits who can buy a converter
The new state law makes it illegal for anyone to purchase a detached, used catalytic converter unless the device is to be installed on another vehicle or is being sold to a “secondary metals recycler” with a fixed address. That provision targets the informal trade of converters over the internet or on the street, said Jeremy Alper, president of the Recycling Association of North Carolina.
“There’s always going to be the fly-by-nights that come through,” Alper said. “Sometimes people will sell a car to a junkyard and cut off the converter and try to sell the converter somewhere else. Now they don’t have a way of doing that.”
The law requires metals recyclers to ensure their converter purchases are legitimate and keep records of the sellers. Alper said scrapyards already do that with other metals.
Alper runs Southern Metals Recycling in Wilmington, a third-generation family business, and says he doesn’t buy loose catalytic converters. For starters, it’s too hard to tell if they’ve been stolen, he said.
The other reason, Alper said, is that it’s difficult to know what an individual catalytic converter is worth. Different cars and trucks have different converters, with varying amounts of precious metals inside.
“I was never comfortable with that,” he said. “It’s too much money to risk over-paying for something that didn’t have the value you thought it did.”