Catalytic converter theft is on the rise locally and nationally due to high resale value. This growing trend is affecting individuals, businesses and the recycling chain of precious metals.
The Times News spent the last several weeks examining the data and talking to experts to find out how this trend is affecting the sector.
What are catalytic converters?
A catalytic converter is part of a car’s exhaust system and helps regulate the car’s harmful emissions.
The Clean Air Act of 1970 required all cars built after 1975 to be equipped with a catalytic converter. This requirement is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
A catalytic converter can regulate emissions because three precious metals are added during the production of converters: platinum, palladium and rhodium.
The United States Geological Survey included all three of these metals on its 2022 list of critical minerals, which the Energy Act of 2020 defines as “a non-fuel mineral or mineral substance essential to the economic or national security of the United States. Vulnerable to supply chain disruption.” “
Why is the converter stolen?
Catalytic converters are often stolen for their high resale value due to the use of precious metals. All three metals used in catalytic converters are highly valuable and sell for large sums of money.
According to Rxmechanic.com, the average scrap price for a catalytic converter is between $300 and $1,500.
How common is catalytic converter theft?
Catalyst conversion theft is not uncommon, and national data confirm a growing trend.
Converter theft is not just a national issue. This is also a matter of concern for some areas of the region.
For example, in the city of Kingsport from January 1, 2021, to July 26, 2021, the Kingsport Police Department recorded eight converter thefts. During the same period in 2022, Kingsport police reported 20 thefts. This is a 150% increase in reports over the same period.
Jeff Harr, who has owned Jeff’s Pipes and Muffler in Kingsport for 23 years, said three to four people a week, or 20 to 25 a month, come into his shop because their catalytic converters are stolen.
According to Harr, replacing a catalytic converter can be an expensive expense. While the cost of car parts has changed, it can range from $800 to $2,000, depending on the type of conversion.
Harr said many people steal catalytic converters because it’s a “quick buck.”
“Catalytic converters are usually the one part that doesn’t go bad,” Harr said. “It’s something that you would never have to replace if someone didn’t steal it. So, to have that happen and be out $1,000-$1,500 is heartbreaking.
How does catalytic converter theft affect victims?
Many people with stolen converters do not have the money to replace them.
Laura Bowling, 38, of Rogersville, said her catalytic converter was stolen earlier this year while her 2003 Dodge Caravan was parked at her sister’s house.
Bowling said she can’t drive without the converter because the car is too big and would cost $200 to $300 to fix.
Since the converter was stolen, Bowling has only one car available for his family.
“If my van has a converter, I can drive it and give my teenager my current car,” Bowling said.
Converter theft doesn’t just affect individuals. Some people even steal from businesses like auto mechanics.
Sandy Eric Jackson, 41, manager of Jackson Automotive Sales, said her shop was stolen twice. Thieves hit both personal employees’ cars and customers’ cars.
Since the cases began, customers have been lenient about the thefts, Jackson said, adding that some customers don’t want to leave their cars in the shop overnight.
Eric Moore, 29, former co-owner of Patriot Auto Repair in Bulls Gap, said his shop has been hit by thieves several times. The thieves stole personal and customer cars, as well as the store’s U-Haul trucks.
“A theft like this can hurt a new business that doesn’t have great insurance,” Moore said. “If someone steals something, it can be detrimental to a new business.”
How do thieves sell stolen converters?
Moore said people with stolen converters sell them to private dealers who don’t check the documents. Harr said he has heard people advertise on social media that they are buying catalytic converters.
Converters can also be sold to a scrap dealer, such as Davis Recycling Inc. of Johnson City.
Companies like Davis Recycling are required to follow strict state laws when it comes to selling to individuals. For example, the sale must be made in person, and the seller must provide a receipt showing the replacement of the converter and the registration of the vehicle.
They must also provide their signature and fingerprints, have a valid ID and provide the year, make, model and plate number of the car they drive. Also, state law does not allow payment on the day of sale. Instead, sellers can mail a check to their home or wait five days to receive their payment.
Ben Davis, who has owned Davis Recycling since 1998, said he mostly buys converters from licensed dealers. He said catalytic converter thieves target cars with easy access and valuable converters.
Are recycling and scrap dealers part of the problem or the solution?
Davis Recycling also processes catalytic converters, which means they deconstruct converters to remove parts that contain precious metals. Then they analyze each converter to see how much of each metal it contains.
Then, they send it to a smelter, which helps recover the metals and sends them back to the factory to be used in another converter.
“Recycling is a greener way to get metals into the mine,” Davis said. “Vehicles need converters because, without them, nobody can drive. Most of the stolen goods are sold to people who don’t check the license. We are an important part of the supply chain, and some big corporations depend on these metals.”
Aaron Kolb, chief operating officer for Davis Recycling and treasurer of the Tennessee Scrap Recyclers Association, said there is a misconception that recyclers and scrap dealers are part of the problem.
“As processors, it’s our duty to take action and be part of the solution by removing more bad players,” he said, “which will help limit access to people buying stolen converters.”
Are there laws to regulate the sale of catalytic converters?
As a member of TSRA, Kolb has worked with state legislators to pass legislation to address catalytic converter theft.
Last year, Tennessee passed a catalytic converter consumer protection law, requiring anyone with a catalytic converter to be a registered scrap dealer or show documentation to prove the converter was obtained from a replacement vehicle in their name.
Anyone who violates this law will be charged with a Class A misdemeanor for each converter they own. If charged with a Class A misdemeanor, a person could face up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
“We’ve been able to arrest some people and work with law enforcement to provide training materials to the police,” Kolb said. “I have a good relationship with law enforcement; they know they can call when they need help.”
How does law enforcement deal with catalytic converter theft?
Lt. Detective Cliff Evans of the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office said police take catalytic converter thefts seriously.
“It’s not a small thing,” Evans said. “This is a serious crime.”
Evans added that sometimes thieves can remove the catalytic converter and cause $2,000 to $3,000 in damage to other parts of the car.
How can people protect themselves from catalytic conversion theft?
Evans said people should park their vehicles in non-secluded, well-lit areas.
Kolb said he is involved in a national conversation about how individuals can protect themselves from converter theft.
Kolb said one idea is to implement an etching protocol that allows mechanics to put the VIN number on the converter. Another option is to use a converter cage to limit access.
“Etching is an easy, cost-efficient and quick option,” Kolb said. “Thieves like convenience, so if you make it difficult by using a converter cage, they can get into your vehicle.”