Catching catalytic converter thieves

Mike Genet
The Examiner USA TODAY NETWORK

This week, an Independence citizen spooked a would-be catalytic converter thief trying to swipe from a neighbor's vehicle. 

Chante Drew said the thief took off after she heard the noise of a roto saw, poked her head outside and asked what was going on. Independence police found a car jack underneath the vehicle and the converter partially sawed off.  

In addition, Lee's Summit police this week on social media noted the arrest of a thief who got noticed by a citizen who stayed on the line until officers located him underneath a vehicle with a battery-operated saw. An accomplice got away. 

Those close calls, however, aren't very common, Metro law enforcement agencies are working together to battle a crime that's been particularly problematic the last couple of years. 

“Catalytic converter theft is a frustrating crime for our citizens in terms of cost and inconvenience,” Lee's Summit police said in posting about the arrest. “It is frustrating for our officers because the crime normally takes less than 30 seconds to complete and officers are normally not able to make arrests in these cases.” 

The catalytic converter is on the underside of a vehicle. It’s part of the exhaust system, helping to filter emissions and required on vehicles for a few decades. Thieves often cut the pipe that connects it to the engine, and they’ll take the parts to a scrap metal place (sometimes a knowing accomplice) that strips them for valuable metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium that are crucial for filtering. 

If the vehicle is high enough off the ground, an efficient thief can swipe the converter and be gone in a minute or less. But whereas a converter might net a couple hundred dollars for the metal, repairing the vehicle can cost that owner up to $1,000 or more. 

“It's plaguing communities across the nation, and really across the globe,” Corporal Nate Bradley of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Troop A, said of the crime, and fighting it is a “conundrum.”  

“Not because of bad legislation, but we haven't caught up to it yet.” 

Area police departments say agencies around the metro share intelligence and try to piece together information on possible theft rings. Bradley hosts a monthly auto theft intelligence sharing group involving agencies on both sides of the state line and says converter thefts have been a hot top “especially the last 24 months.” 

While catching thieves in the act is difficult, Bradley has suggested that officers should be more proactive about seizing converters if spotted during a traffic stop. 

The converter is designed to last a vehicle's lifetime, Bradley said, and from talking with auto repair shops, only a small fraction of converter replacements derive from faulty parts. True, a person can legally scrap a converter through normal metal salvage practices, rather than resell an otherwise junk vehicle. But having multiple converters together is different. 

“When you find these in a car in middle of night, let's ask some questions,” he said. “If I stop a pickup truck, and he's got a bunch of catalytic converters in the bed of a truck or I see them on the back floorboard, I as a police officer should ask some questions, knowing it's a frequently stolen item.” 

Independence police have made some recent arrests in connection with converter thefts, Officer Jack Taylor said. The city has an ordinance covering secondary metal recyclers, which includes specific requirements for converter sales. Metal recyclers are required to keep detailed records of transactions of sale, including metal information and a copy of the driver’s license or state ID of the person who is selling them, as well as information of the vehicle the seller used for delivery. 

“Normally we treat that as a business license issue, but it does give access to information of possible thefts,” IPD Sgt. John Syme said. “That’s going to give us reasonable suspicion, if someone drops off 100 in a month. In the past, we’ve found that when we go after a group of people that have been working together, we see a drop in thefts.” 

Bradley said he knows of one scrap metal business in Kansas that “drew a line in the sand” and doesn't accept a converter without the whole vehicle. But such business goodwill doesn’t happen often enough when metal scrappers stand to benefit the most. 

“We've not dis-incentivized companies from buying stolen converters,” he said. 

Bradley said he knows of some specific problem dealers in the metro area, but being able to prove them in court as accomplices is another matter. 

“Our problem is the converter is not serialized to a specific vehicle, that's our evidentiary problem,” he said. “We can have real, energetic conversations with prosecutors, but we're no further along.” 

The more agencies help each other in solving the crime, the better, Bradley said. 

“We have to partner with each other,” he said. “We have to share data.”