Philly sees a spike in catalytic converter theft. The auto part has metals worth more than gold.
When thieves repeatedly hit her Mount Airy street last summer, Sara Steele attempted to protect her Toyota Prius.
Burglars had stolen the catalytic converters of its neighbors, an auto part made with metals worth more than gold. Not wanting to be the next victim, she ordered a steel shield to attach to the bottom of her car and protect the expensive device.
It was too late. Ahead of the Shield’s arrival in August, Steele booted up his normally silent hybrid and it roared like a motorcycle. Someone had sawn off their catalytic converter, an emission control device between the engine and the muffler.
“It was parked right in front of my house,” Steele said. “If they had broken into it, the alarm would have gone off. I did not hear anything.
Catalytic converter thefts are on the rise across the country, fueled by record prices for auto part precious metals, which help gasoline engines burn cleaner. The demand for metals, palladium and rhodium, has increased in recent years as governments pass stricter emissions laws to reduce pollution. The automotive industry is the biggest consumer of metals.
Just five years ago, an ounce of palladium was worth almost $ 600, according to Johnson Matthey, a British chemicals and technology company. Now it costs around $ 2,900. In comparison, an ounce of gold is worth almost $ 1,900. Rhodium is even more valuable, with prices above $ 28,000 an ounce this month.
These peaks have created an underground market for items containing palladium and rhodium. A single catalytic converter contains only a few grams of the precious metal, but burglars can sell the stolen parts at junkyards for hundreds of dollars, law enforcement officials have said.
“It’s quick and easy money, and the transactions are hard to trace,” said Jan McDermott, car theft unit supervisor in the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.
In Philadelphia, there were 489 auto theft incidents in 2019 where the word “catalytic” or “converter” was mentioned in investigative notes, according to police. There were 866 in 2020, an increase of 77%. Thefts are expected to jump again this year, with 586 incidents reported as of May 7.
Other cities, such as St. Louis and Seattle, have reported an increase in thefts. Denver has seen a 1,600% spike in stolen catalytic converters during the pandemic.
Crimes only take a few minutes. Someone can quickly lift a car and use a battery saw to cut the device from below.
“We’ve had it in some of our local malls, where literally people are there for minutes, and during that time it happens to them,” said Cherry Hill Police Lt. John Moyer, who leads the police department’s investigation. division.
Cherry Hill officials know this firsthand. At around 2 a.m. on a Monday this month, thieves stole 10 catalytic converters in 40 minutes from municipal vehicles parked outside the public works department’s maintenance building, Moyer said. An investigation is underway.
Raised trucks are easy targets because a jack is not needed. But thieves seem to prefer the Toyota Prius, which uses more grams of precious metals, according to law enforcement and mechanics. A Toyota spokesperson called the thefts an “industry-wide challenge” and said “the Prius is just as risky as any other vehicle.”
“There are groups that are traveling across the country, and they will come to town and they are looking for Toyota Priuses and nothing else because these are the most popular,” said Joseph Boche, chairman of the subcommittee on theft of catalytic converters. for the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI). The Mitsubishi Outlander and Honda Element and CRV models are also favorite targets, Boche said.
Thefts can cost consumers more than $ 3,000 in repairs, depending on the vehicle and their insurance coverage. Derek Warnick of Chestnut Hill paid around $ 800 after the theft of his Prius’ catalytic converter in October. He caught the thieves in the act around 5 a.m. one morning and ran downstairs as they were fleeing. His car appeared unharmed – until he tried to drive it.
“I went back and there was just that loud, horrible sound,” he said.
The mechanics who do the repairs blame whoever buys the obviously stolen parts. TJ Frearson, owner of the Carpenter Lane garage in Mount Airy, noted that mechanics unlock the catalytic converters to replace them. They don’t hack them.
“You can clearly tell they just cut the car,” said Frearson, who has had about 10 customers with missing catalytic converters over the past year.
Mechanics also saw Prius owners request the installation of “cat guards” – steel plates that cover the catalytic converters and cost around $ 200, like the one Steele ordered too late.
Boche, from IITA, suggested owners engrave their license plates or vehicle identification numbers on the devices. This way the police can at least trace a stolen part back to its owner.
Boche called for laws to regulate scrap metal sales, requiring owners to identify themselves, prove they own the catalytic converters and limit the use of cash in such sales. He said police needed to be able to access these transaction tapes.
While emissions rules have boosted demand for rhodium and palladium, the pandemic has likely impacted prices as well. About 80% of the world’s rhodium comes from South Africa, where coronavirus shutdown orders and unrelated processing plant shutdowns have slowed production.
“In the rhodium market, if anything happens to impact South African mining, it certainly has a much bigger impact on the dynamics of supply and demand,” said Wilma Swarts, Director of Platinum Group Metals at Metals Focus, a London-based research consultancy. .
The global domino effect of these market forces may have reached Bill England’s home last month. England, from Elkins Park, had a catalytic converter stolen. His Prius was parked in his driveway when this happened.
“I would have thought it was safe,” he said. “I have two lights on the driveway, just as a deterrent.”