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There’s an Army of Thieves Coming for Your Catalytic Converter

Jeffersontown, Kentucky | November 2021: The suspects had stashed the van inside a residential garage on Southside drive. At 4:00 in the morning, officers from the Jeffersontown Police Department burst onto the property, raided the garage, and opened the van’s back doors. There, they found their mark: almost 200 catalytic converters, a jagged tangle of rusty parts adorned with hacksaw marks where each converter had been cut from its former vehicle. It seemed the homeowner was running an operation fencing stolen catalytic converters, paying thieves for the parts then selling the take to a processor who extracted the precious metals inside. One autocat (or ‘cat,’ to gearheads) can net a thief over $100, while the broker buying the parts could sell each one to a recycler for up to $500.

That’s easy money for thieves: Removing a catalytic converter can take less than a minute, involving little more than a thief slipping under a car and making two cuts with a Sawzall. The day before the Jeffersontown raid, police caught a man on camera stealing an autocat in a hotel parking lot. That man went right to the house on Southside Drive to make the sale, not even bothering to change the clothes that easily identified him.

Police ultimately arrested the man on the camera footage, the owner of the home, and the homeowner’s wife, mother-in-law, and twin brothers. All of them face charges of trafficking in stolen auto parts. According to Jeffersontown Police Chief Rick Sanders, crude but “meticulous” records recovered in the raid suggested the hustle had made the family $180,000 in four months.

“[The raid] is a significant event,” Sanders said at a press conference a few days later. “We consider these to be high-level violators who are responsible for hundreds of catalytic converters that have been stolen throughout Jefferson County.”

Records recovered in the raid suggested the hustle had made the family $180,000 in four months.

WLKY TV

It isn’t just the Louisville area that is under siege. Autocat theft has been proliferating across the globe since early 2020, the street-level result of an unprecedented increase in the price of the precious metals contained inside each part. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, autocat theft in the United States rose from a total of 3,398 reported crimes in 2019 to more than 14,400 in 2020, with thieves removing cats from fleets of school buses, city vehicles, charity vans, and cars parked in residential driveways and employer parking lots. The trend continued in 2021: Louisville Police reported 1,340 stolen cats by October 20, almost ten percent of the entire nation’s 2020 total in one city alone.

While thefts involve a small fraction of the tens of millions of catalytic converters recycled each year in the U.S., the cost to drivers, law enforcement agencies, and global industries is tremendous. A stolen cat could cost its previous owner upwards of $2,000 to replace. The profits for thieves can fund other crimes, and as increased demand for precious metals strains the pipeline, dangerous and environmentally damaging mining becomes more common. After their November raid, the Jeffersontown Police put the van full of catalytic converters on display outside the press conference, a figurative head on a pike to deter area thieves. Similar raids are taking place all over the country as task forces, lawmakers, and recyclers try to reign in this maddening craze.

• • •

Catalytic converters are part of a vehicle’s exhaust system. Located underneath the rear of the car, they might evoke a vulnerable component of the male anatomy—something critical and delicate, yet bizarrely exposed.

Most cats, about the size of two coffee cans, house a ceramic honeycomb coated with small amounts of platinum, palladium, and rhodium—platinum group metals (PGMs) that “clean” the carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides produced by combustion engines. When gas molecules run over the PGM coating, those molecules divide into individual atoms, then rearrange themselves into less harmful compounds before exiting the converter as exhaust. This happens through two reactions: Reduction catalysts break nitrogen oxide into nitrogen and oxygen gases, and oxidation catalysts change carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide by adding oxygen atoms.

how catalytic converters work

When gas molecules run over the PGM coating, those molecules divide into individual atoms, then rearrange themselves into less harmful compounds before exiting the converter as exhaust.

Popular Mechanics

According to the Universal Technical Institute, there are typically 3 to 7 grams of platinum, 2 to 7 grams of palladium, and 1 to 2 grams of rhodium in the standard converter. PGMs are rare. They form inside intrusive igneous complexes, mineral patterns that occur when layers of subterranean magma cool into igneous rock and settle between pre-existing layers of the earth’s crust. The magma’s gradual cooling contributes to high crystallization—one can see the mineral makeup of these layers with the naked eye—which in turn contributes to the layering common to intrusive complexes. These specific geologic conditions are the only circumstances under which PGMs appear in nature, says Frank Hallam, President of Canadian mining company Platinum Group Metals, LTD. While a variety of industries, including computer hardware and medical tools, use PGMs like palladium, the automotive industry uses over 80 percent of the global supply of palladium each year

catalytic converters

Redux

This intense demand exceeds what mining can supply, so the autocat recycling industry steps up to supplement the rest. More than 90 percent of the PGMs in an old catalytic converter can be recovered, and industry estimates suggest that recycled PGMs account for 40 to 50 percent of the annual supply.

Recyclers typically buy used catalytic converters in thousand-pound lots from scrap yards, or take them from the junked cars they buy by the thousands, Froneman says, noting his company processes up to 24 tons of old catalytic converters per day. Used autocats are “decanned” with hydraulic shears, then the PGM-coated honeycomb substrate is removed, pulverized, smelted, and refined. From there, the PGMs are sold to original equipment manufacturers that build new catalytic converters for auto manufacturers. Whereas mining yields around 16 grams of PGMs per ton of ore, recycling yields up to 2300 grams per ton of old catalysts, Froneman says—a lucrative industry for miners, refiners, and thieves.

• • •

Houston, Texas | May 2020: U-Haul fleet manager Patrick Gomez had little reason to expect anything was amiss when he arrived at work in the morning. But the first customer returned to the shop and said the truck he’d received was making a terrible sound. Gomez walked out to the truck with him and heard the guttural, gnarly roar. “I look underneath, and the catalytic converters are gone. The cages were just sitting there right on the ground,” he says, referring to the vehicle’s supposed “anti-theft” cat cage. Eight trucks had been hit.

Gomez didn’t report the thefts to police, but there was little the cops could do. Catalytic converters don’t require VIN numbers or other identifying information, making them essentially untraceable once they’re removed. Historically, law enforcement agencies haven’t tracked reported catalytic converter thefts in general. Autocat thefts have happened before this recent trend, but not on such a large scale.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau has tracked autocat thefts since 2008, when they issued their first nationwide report on the crime. Thefts leapt from 3,246 in 2008 to 14,400 in 2020, an increase greater than 300 percent. Analysts have traced surges in theft back to “operational outages” in the supply chain. Analysts have traced surges in theft back to “operational outages” in the supply chain. “There are four big mining companies globally who mine for platinum group metals,” Justin Froneman says. “If [one company has] an issue, everyone else catches a cold from the sneeze.”

police deputy looking under truck for stolen catalytic converter

Thefts leapt from 3,246 in 2008 to 14,400 in 2020, an increase greater than 300 percent.

Getty Images

Because of their rarity, PGMs aren’t cheap, and prices skyrocket when supply strains. A recent series of operational outages has kicked off the current price increase that is galvanizing theft. In February 2020, an explosion at an Anglo American Platinum processing plant in Rustenberg, South Africa, put the facility (and the one intended to replace it) out of commission for a year, reducing expected PGM yields by 500,000 ounces. Meanwhile, flooding at Russian mines and labor strikes and COVID-related workforce limits at South African mines limited production in those regions as well.

Consequently, by early 2021, the price of palladium reached a high of $2,800/troy ounce (1.09 standard ounces). Rhodium prices, meanwhile, peaked at almost $30,000/troy ounce at the end of April 2021, ten times more than the price only two years before. (Gold, by contrast, is currently around $1,800/ounce.)

As recyclers began paying proportionally more for old catalytic converters, it caught the attention of thieves, says Ben Stickle, Ph.D., associate professor of criminal justice administration at Middle Tennessee State University and author of Metal Scrappers and Thieves: Scavenging for Survival and Profit. “The price of metal has to do with an increase in metal theft like few other commodities,” he says. When the price gets high, he adds, thieves are willing to take more risks—and take them more frequently.

• • •

Livermore, California | Summer 2021:Around the same time the Jefferson Police Department was investigating the Louisville autocat racket, a task force on the west coast announced three arrests following a months-long investigation in catalytic converter theft, while the San Jose Police Department announced 15 arrests as a result of Operation Cat Scratch Thiever, a sprawling, six-month-long investigation into a 1200 percent increase of the crime in the area.

Both operations led to the shutdown of local auto businesses acting as chop shops. Miscellaneous contraband recovered along with stolen cats included equipment to make fake IDs, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, numerous kinds of drugs, stolen cars, and caches of illegal firearms, and thousands of rounds of armor-piercing bullets. One District Attorney deemed the haul a “Black Market Costco,” each bust a microcosm of the larger converter theft ecosystem.

2ej47kg sign saying catalytic converter already stolen

Alamy

At the bottom of the ladder are the converter thieves themselves. They earn the smallest cut, but it’s fast money. “These guys can make $100 to $200 for fifteen minutes of work,” says Dr. Kevin Whiteacre, Ph.D., professor of criminal justice at the University of Indianapolis.

Above them are more experienced thieves, likely running other scams in addition to stealing and selling autocats, says special agent Floyd Robinson, an investigator with the Arizona Vehicle Theft Task Force. This level of thief can be clever—one illegal autocat broker caught in Arizona was on probation for stealing gas. He had been running a tube through the floor of his van to a gas station’s underground storage tanks.

It’s not implausible that traditional organized crime is involved in the world of autocat theft, but most theft rings are simply opportunistic. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it organized crime so much as criminal organizations, groups that come together [to steal cats] for a little while” before moving on to something else, Whiteacre says.

One of the quickest ways to get rid of a stolen autocat is through a social media marketplace, a risky move that led to a few of the arrests in Operation Cat Scratch Thiever. Most thieves have buyers they trust lined up in advance. Some pick up the haul while others conduct business out of homes or storage units. Or, as seen in the Livermore investigation, leave the parts at secret drop locations throughout the surrounding counties.

catalytic converters

“The motive is always money—nothing more, nothing less.”

Redux

Most stolen autocats resurface above ground to be sold to scrappers or recyclers, and it’s difficult for investigators to determine which autocats came from questionable sources. On the local level, thieves may fake the required paperwork or disguise stolen cats among a haul of other car parts, subterfuge that also takes place when selling cats in large lots to processors. But as Cat Scratch Thiever and the Livermore busts revealed, there are plenty of scrapyards in on the take: Some simply don’t ask questions, some chop up stolen cats and cars to obscure their identities, and others even work directly with thieves to target specific makes and models. (Prius and SUV cats tend to be most attractive because of their high PGM contents.) A scrapyard might rent space to a third party running an autocat collection operation on their site, taking a cut of the proceeds but able to deny knowledge if caught, Robinson says.

While the mechanisms of the crimes are complex, the motives behind them are often simple. “The motive is always money—nothing more, nothing less,” says Nate Bradley, Corporal with the Missouri State Highway Patrol and member of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators. And while no crime can ever be truly stopped, he says, making it more difficult to profit from theft can make it less appealing for criminals.

• • •

High-profile metal heists have continually challenged American law enforcement to curb theft, and PGM heists have sometimes taken dramatic forms that draw national headlines. In 1960, thieves cut a hole in the roof of a Rhode Island factory to make off with $200,000 worth of platinum. The 1987 Corning Glass Works heist in Pennsylvania made news for $250,000 of missing platinum (and the mystery of the security guard, Dale Kerstetter, who disappeared in the heist, was later featured in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries). In 2019, two robbers paddled a boat to a South Carolina chemical factory and stole $300,000 worth of palladium. (One of the thieves was caught, but is currently awaiting trial for an unrelated murder.)

The six-figure thefts, and the sprees of low-level offenses that miss the headlines, galvanize new legislation designed to disincentivize thieves. A spate of copper-related thefts between 2010 and 2013 led to the widespread passage of laws governing the sale of commodity metals, for example. Now, as catalytic converter theft is exploding, lawmakers at every level of government have shored up existing metal-theft statutes, or enacted new ones to cover the sale of used catalytic converters specifically.

The laws generally require that scrapyards or metal dealers take a combination of a seller’s ID and license plate number, receive proof the seller owns the metal or acquired them legally, or only take payment by bank transfer or checks. Recent changes upgraded autocat theft from misdemeanor to low-level felony, or held recyclers more accountable for buying stolen parts.

The idea is not to restrict metal sales, but vet transactions for right conduct, says Steve Levetan, Executive Vice President of US automotive recycling chain Pull-A-Part and board member of Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), a trade organization that has helped states write metal-related legislation.

pile of catalytic converter scraps

Recyclers typically buy used catalytic converters in thousand-pound lots from scrap yards.

Getty Images

On the frontlines of cat-theft defense, recycling facilities have their own methods of tracing autocats. Scientists at Sibayne-Stillwater’s facility in Montana conduct around 30,000 chemical assay tests on samples from its autocat recycling line each year, alongside paperwork and load audits and spot checks of suppliers. The assay tests provide a breakdown of the sample’s PGM constituents, indicating to recyclers their origins and, in turn, legitimacy, Justin Froneman says. The vast majority of the autocats Stillwater takes in are from North America, but if they see PGMs in proportions found in other regions of the world, this raises suspicions that can be traced to the cats’ original lot.

Some in law enforcement are skeptical that recyclers share their concerns about stolen autocats. Nate Bradley says the industry is subtly encouraging thieves to bring in newer, PGM-dense cats. As he points out, the autocat recycling industry maintains a used catalytic converter price list that includes catalytic converters from brand new vehicles. Manufacturers must warranty autocats for 8 years or 80,000 miles, and besides accidents that incapacitate new vehicles, there shouldn’t be a large amount of these new parts. But when thieves steal new cats, they earn more, buyers earn more, and scrappers earn more. Bradley suggests the profits make the recycling industry less inclined to monitor where cats are coming from. “It’s a self-licking ice cream cone,” he says. “The only ones who are profiting from this is the industry. Everyone else is losing money.”

ISRI’s Steve Levetan acknowledges some of the laws he’s helped write might raise eyebrows, particularly if they make the recycling process more lenient. But recyclers say it should be easy to take in junked cars. “[These cars] are never going back on the road, it’s never going to be retitled, its best use is scrap or parts,” Levetan says. If recyclers can’t take them, the owner has three options – put it back in his yard, abandon it on the street and make the city deal with it, or sell it to someone illegally. Recyclers help reduce city clutter and contribute to theft-monitoring techniques like VIN databases.

“As an owner and potential victim, we have a responsibility to make it as hard as possible for somebody to steal from us, to make material identifiable,” Levetan says. “Law enforcement needs to have the proper tools, and as potential buyers, we have responsibilities. All of those [perspectives] need to mesh and work together.”

• • •

The autocat crime spree encounters the PGM mining industry and automotive industry at a critical technological junction. While pneumatic drills, explosives, and carts are responsible for much of the PGM mining in South Africa, Russia, and the United States, more advanced mines like Platinum Group Metal, LLC’s Waterburg complex in South Africa, use remote-controlled equipment. Waterburg’s remote machines reduce what company president Frank Hallam calls “human to rock interface” and yield 10 times the PGMs of other mines, according to Hallam.

As the automotive industry anticipates the rise of electric vehicles, some mining companies have started targeting minerals used in EV batteries, like nickel, lithium, and cobalt instead of PGMs. Some are pessimistic about EVs’ potential, however. Hallam believes pent-up demand for gas-engine cars will return in 2023, and as government regulations concerning emissions tighten, demand for PGMs will increase. Beyond industry changes, operational outages from unexpected events like Russia’s war on Ukraine and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will continue to affect PGM availability.

engraving serial number on catalytic converter

Getty Images

Currently, the best ways to prevent catalytic converter theft on your car is to park indoors, buy a protective cage from an auto parts store, or weld a metal box to the chassis enclosing the autocat. Some cities have had success with campaigns for widespread defense measures, such as engraving VIN numbers on the cat, or painting them with bright paint that would signal to a scrapper that the part was stolen.

In the future, catalytic converters might come standard with registerable serial numbers that make them more traceable, or cars might be redesigned to make the cat less accessible. But if it’s not autocats being stolen, it will be something else, special agent Robinson says: “If all you do is sit around thinking about how to make money and run scams, you get good at it.”

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