Troy Webber, owner of Chesterfield Auto Parts in Richmond, Va., holds a used catalytic converter that was removed from one of the cars at his salvage yard Dec. 17, 2021. Thefts of the emission control devices have jumped over the last two years as prices for the precious metals they contain have skyrocketed. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Troy Webber, owner of Chesterfield Auto Parts in Richmond, Va., holds a used catalytic converter that was removed from one of the cars at his salvage yard Dec. 17, 2021. Thefts of the emission control devices have jumped over the last two years as prices for the precious metals they contain have skyrocketed. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Editorial: Catalytic converters thefts call for tighter rules

A bill in the state Senate would require better tracking of sales to discourage theft of the car parts.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Those looking for a hedge against inflation might consider investing in precious metals. Your local catalytic converter thief can vouch for their value.

Deep inside your vehicle’s exhaust system, the catalytic converter uses precious metals — rhodium, platinum and palladium — to convert the most noxious of the fumes from your vehicle’s engine into less harmful emissions. Passed through a metal plate that contains the precious metals, much of the carbon monoxide, unburned hyrdrocarbons and nitrous oxide are converted into carbon dioxide, water vapor and nitrogen.

That’s a job that’s turned those precious metals into essential workers in limiting the damage from air pollution and climate change. But the demand for those metals has increased their value and generated a market for theft of the converters and sales to less-than-scrupulous scrap metal yards and metal recyclers.

So, how precious are these precious metals?

Currently, rhodium trades for about $17,000 an ounce but had gone for more than $26,000 an ounce last year. Even the small amount used in converters means the car parts can fetch from $50 to $500 from a metals dealer. And that potential payday has led to a jump in the last two years of thefts of the converters and — more dangerously — confrontations between thieves and car owners.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that thefts of the converters jumped nationwide from 3,389 in 2019 to 14,433 in 2020, with more than 2,300 thefts reported for the month of December 2020 alone.

The value of those metals also means that replacement of a stolen catalytic converter isn’t cheap. A theft that can be accomplished in mere minutes with a battery-operated saw can end up costing vehicle owners more than $1,000 and the loss of the use of a vehicle while waiting for parts to arrive. Even if insured, most are out their deductible of $250 or more.

Until 2021, the Everett Police Department wasn’t tracking the converter thefts individually; that changed when the thefts quickly increased last year. In response the department has launched Project CatCon ID, offering to engrave residents’ catalytic converters with the last eight digits of their car’s vehicle identification number and highlighting it with high-temperature paint to make their illegal sale to dealers more difficult.

At the same time, state lawmakers are considering two pieces of legislation to confront what Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, sponsor of one of the bills, called “the crime of the day.”

“Public safety and property rights are what’s driving this legislation,” Wilson said during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee. While numerous states are seeing the same rise in thefts and are considering legislation, Washington state, Wilson said, leads the nation in the rate of thefts, rising from 21 thefts per 100,000 vehicles in 2020, to 148 thefts per 100,000 in 2021, according to BeenVerified.

The first bill, House Bill 1815, would require the Washington State Patrol to establish a task force to review state laws and a pilot project to better track the thefts of catalytic converters using vehicle identification numbers and other identifiers.

Wilson’s bill, Senate Bill 5495, takes a more direct approach, adding precious metals to the list of materials for which scrap metal dealers must maintain a record of sales; bars dealers from buying converters from anyone except commercial dealers and the owner of the vehicle the converter was removed from; and would make knowingly receiving stolen materials a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a fine up to $5,000.

Lobbyists for the scrap metal industry raised objections to the Senate bill, noting that state law already makes it illegal to purchase stolen material; instead, they are backing the House bill.

There shouldn’t be much doubt as to the reason for that preference; further study and review of the issue means dealers and the scrap metal industry can delay taking additional steps to address the problem and prevent the illegal sales that are driving theft. And, yes, purchase of stolen material already is illegal, but that fact hasn’t slowed the thefts nor the sale of stolen converters and their metals.

Arrests and prosecution for thefts for catalytic converters often consume significant time and resources with the payoff of only minimal sentences, Gary Ernsdorff, with the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said during Tuesday’s hearing. At the same time, the market has proved very lucrative for those involved.

“This is a big money business. Recyclers and middlemen make a lot of money off these transactions,” Ernsdorff said. “Last year I saw a buyer on Facebook post a photo of his brand new Lamborghini, bought with catalytic converter proceeds. And it was his second Lamborghini.”

Rather than spending more money to pursue convictions against thieves and illegal sellers, Ernsdorff sees tighter regulation of the sales that can create the demand for theft as the solution.

“The question for (lawmakers) is: Do we throw a lot of money at the supply side, incarcerating our way out of this problem, increasing standard (sentencing) range and putting an additional burden on our criminal justice system or do we attack the demand side with thoughtful regulation?,” the deputy prosecuting attorney said. “Dry up the demand for stolen catalytic converters and you dry up the thefts overnight.”

The added regulation and collection of seller’s information, Ernsdorff said, isn’t an unreasonable requirement for scrap metal dealers.

“If you can afford a Lamborghini,” Ernsdorff, said, “you can afford a couple more minutes on a transaction that’s going to net you hundreds of dollars.”

And you’re less likely to have to worry about someone stealing the catalytic converter off your Italian sports car.

Project CatCon ID

The Everett Police Department’s next Project CatCon ID event, in partnership with automotive students from Sno-Isle Technology School, is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Jan. 29 at Sno-Isle Tech, 9001 Airport Road, Everett. The service is free, and no appointment is necessary. The department also offers tips for theft prevention of the catalytic converters at tinyurl.com/CatConTipsEPD.

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