Law enforcement officials have described catalytic converter theft, a crime that has skyrocketed this last year due to the surging price of precious metals, as a “crime of opportunity.”
That philosophy continues through the entire transaction, from the theft itself to the sale.
While catalytic converters — a standard part of a vehicle’s exhaust system — don’t typically have specific part numbers, scrap and wrecking yards that purchase catalytic converters in the state of Washington have to keep a record of the make, model, year and vehicle identification number (VIN) for the vehicle the catalytic converter originally came from.
The idea is that if the catalytic converter was stolen, the seller wouldn’t have that information.
But in an industry that’s primarily cash-based, it’s not uncommon for businesses or individual employees to buy a stolen catalytic converter under-the-table at a lower price.
“A lot of places need that documentation but a lot of them will say ‘you know what, come here at 5 o’clock, we can take care of it,’” said Maximilian Macdonald, owner of Maximilian Motorsports, an automotive repair shop located in Chehalis that specializes in European specialty cars, hybrids and electric vehicles. Macdonald said he’s required to maintain a paper trail for every catalytic converter he handles on the job, whether that’s replacing a car’s catalytic converter with a new one or dismantling the vehicle.
“Any catalytic converter that we remove and replace on a vehicle … we have documentation of where that came from. We can show proof that one was replaced with it. There’s a paper trail for it,” Macdonald said.
A catalytic converter in good condition with all the necessary documentation will typically sell for $1,200 or so, Macdonald said.
But Macdonald said it’s not uncommon for others in his industry, be they individual employees at a scrap yard or the business owners themselves, to work “side deals” buying catalytic converters without the necessary documentation for a lower price to make some extra money.
“Well, if you have something you have essentially no net value in and they say ‘you know what, I’m only going to give you $600 bucks for it,’ what are you going to do? It’s stolen goods,” he said.
And once the stolen catalytic converter is past that point of sale, the part is usually added to a large volume of other catalytic converters for processing and it’s easy for that specific part to be lost in the system.
“Once they get in the sea of catalytic converters, then they get processed, and not every leg of that is being checked,” Macdonald said. “The law is there but it’s so easy to slip beyond it because it is a cash-based industry and there’s no ripple effect of paperwork to find anything.”
Washington State Patrol troopers are regularly monitoring scrap and wrecking yards within the state for suspicious activity.
If troopers have probable cause to suspect a person may be stealing and selling catalytic converters, the state patrol can open an investigation.
“We’ve got quite a few subjects that we’re watching, although they’re sporadic and they’re jumping from spot to spot,” Trooper Michael Wells told The Chronicle.
There has been some recent success cracking down on catalytic converter theft in Washington state: last month, a detective unit with the Kent Police Department recovered 800 stolen catalytic converters, seized about $40,000 in cash and arrested multiple suspects following a lengthy investigation.
But that bust recovered only a fraction of the estimated 4,000 catalytic converters stolen from the Kent area since January 2020, according to data from the Kent Police Department.
One of the biggest hurdles in identifying and prosecuting those responsible for catalytic converter thefts in Washington, said Wells, is that many of the catalytic converters reported stolen in Washington are sold out of state.
“We do our due diligence in Washington, just the other states just aren’t up to speed with regulating major component parts on vehicles,” said Wells. “Oregon doesn’t regulate as well as we do and that’s where a lot of these catalytic converters are going.”
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown recently signed legislation toughening up the state’s catalytic converter regulations. Starting Jan. 1, 2022, scrap metal businesses in Oregon won’t be allowed to purchase catalytic converters from anyone other than a commercial seller or the owner of the vehicle the catalytic converter originally came from.
It will take some time after Oregon’s legislation takes effect to see whether the tighter regulations affect catalytic converter thefts in Washington.
Hybrid vehicles — specifically the Toyota Prius — are currently the vehicles most commonly targeted for their catalytic converters because their catalytic converters require a higher concentration of precious metals to meet emission standards.
Companies such as MillerCAT make catalytic converter protectors specifically for the Prius that are designed to make it more difficult for a potential thief to access the catalytic converter.
“Think of it as an iron maiden that fits around so it can’t be easily cut off and taken off the vehicle,” Macdonald said.
Other options include after-market alarms that activate when they detect vibrations or sense that the vehicle is being jacked up.
Local police departments recommend drivers park their vehicles in indoor garages or in well-lit areas to discourage potential thieves.