police car
More than 2,300 catalytic converter theft insurance claims were filed in December 2020, but that likely represents only a small portion of actual theft incidents.
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ISRI2021: Precious metals yield atrocious behavior

As platinum group metal prices have soared, scrap recyclers have found themselves involved in staunching a wave of catalytic converter thefts.

April 28, 2021

Prices of platinum, palladium and rhodium have soared to record highs, and both scrap recyclers and law enforcement officers know that means one thing: Catalytic converter thefts are rising.

At an ISRI2021 online workshop, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) Director of Law Enforcement Outreach Brady Mills cited National Insurance Crime Bureau statistics showing that while in 2018 catalytic converter theft claims average 118 per month, by December 2020 that figure reached 2,347 such claims filed.

Mills said those figures are low, perhaps by a large additional sum, because they do not include unreported crimes, cases where insurance claims were not filed by vehicle owners or cases where the claims did not specifically identify the converter.

Butch Bryant of the Knox County, Tennessee, sheriff’s office quoted mid-20th century bank robber Willie Sutton, who when asked why he robbed banks replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” In April 2021, platinum is worth $1,200 per ounce, palladium $2,500 and rhodium a whopping $28,000 per ounce. To a thief, that’s where the money is.

Bryant and fellow panelist Steve Levetan, an executive vice president with Atlanta-based auto salvage firm Pull-A-Part LLC, described the current state of the problem as well as joint efforts underway between ISRI, law enforcement agencies and other trade groups with a stake in preventing the thefts.

In many states, including Tennessee, existing metal theft laws passed during previous crime waves remain on the books and, in most cases, can be applied. However, Levetan said, “Passing a law, in and of itself, is rarely the answer.”

Levetan showed the Facebook Marketplace pages of two buyers of catalytic converters—one in Georgia and the other in South Carolina—with no street addresses who offer to buy catalytic converters by meeting at a retail parking lot. In some cases, such buyers claim to skirt laws applied to scrap dealers by claiming they are used core or parts buyers.

Bryant said Knox County has interrupted at least one such transaction in a superstore parking lot. Perhaps more worrying was a case in an adjacent county where a catalytic converter thief attempted to run down an officer, said Bryant, causing the officer to shoot and wound the suspect.

Bryant also portrayed a case in Los Angeles County where a 19-person crime ring was broken up, with $100,000 in cash and $750,000 in stolen property confiscated. Catalytic converter theft was a critical part of that operation, he said.

Bryant and Levetan pointed to earlier efforts to reduce the theft of air conditioner cores as providing a template to address the converter theft problem. At least one county in the South has tested a program where vehicle owners have the option of having an identification tag and a bright, painted sheriff’s logo placed onto converters.

Bryant said of thieves who confront a converter marked that way, “When they get underneath that fleet vehicle and see that big, marked Knox County Sheriff’s star, they’re going to go elsewhere.” (Bryant singled out truck, bus and van fleet owners because they are frequent victims of catalytic converter theft and can be willing participants in a marking program.)

Levetan and Bryant know each other from working together on task forces and working groups addressing the catalytic converter theft issue. They see cooperation between recyclers, law enforcement agencies, the insurance industry and fleet owners as a way forward.

“Recyclers are often the ones who tell us, ‘Here’s what’s going on, here’s who’s doing it,’” said Bryant of recyclers providing information on stolen material sellers and buyers. “I challenge law enforcement officers to get out there and develop that relationship with your local recyclers. None of the legitimate recyclers like the stigma of being associated with these catalytic converter thefts.”

Levetan said, “As ISRI members, we have an opportunity to work with law enforcement and with other community partners to help prevent these thefts and to help law enforcement catch these thieves. Reach out to your local law enforcement [agency], and we can make a difference.”