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Catalytic converter thefts climbing across U.S.




CINCINNATI

Marty Boyer’s carefully maintained sport utility vehicle growled more like a dragster than a 2001 Honda Passport as he turned the key.

He immediately figured out the problem. A half-dozen office colleagues had told him stories about that roar. Their catalytic converters were stolen, too, in a crime rising rapidly across the country, from riverside parking lots in Cincinnati to highways along the California coast.

Stolen converters, which contain small amounts of the precious metals platinum and palladium, follow copper wire and sewer grates on the long list of metal items targeted by thieves who want to cash in on climbing metal commodity prices.

“The second I turned it over, and it sounded like a tank and a Harley, I knew exactly what had occurred,” said Boyer, 33, an assistant technology director at a downtown business.

Stories like Boyer’s are increasingly common as converter thieves slip under vehicles with battery-powered saws, sometimes in daylight, and in a matter of minutes leave unsuspecting drivers with rumbling exhaust systems and shocking repair bills.

The thefts were a sporadic problem nationally until about a year ago but have grown to a near-epidemic, said Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Scafidi received an overwhelming response when he recently questioned bureau agents.

“Everybody was seeing reports of this, hearing reports of this, talking to the local cops – all over the country,” he said.

Police in one northeast Ohio community say they had about 75 converter thefts this year.

California has become a hot spot, especially in the Sacramento and San Francisco areas, and thieves have stolen vehicles only to abandon them after removing the converters, said Lt. Chris Costigan of the California Highway Patrol.

No comprehensive national totals are available on converter thefts, which are usually lumped into theft or vandalism categories. But anecdotal evidence shows a growing problem around the country, said John Nielsen, director of the AAA’s Approved Auto Repair and Auto Buying Network.

The converters, which reduce harmful emissions, have been standard equipment since the mid-1970s, and some newer vehicles have up to four.

Five years ago, platinum and palladium traded respectively for about $608 and $208 per troy ounce, a metal measurement slightly larger than an ounce. Platinum now goes for $2,083 per troy ounce, and palladium draws about $468 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Prices have increased with demand as use of catalytic converters grew and platinum jewelry gained widespread popularity, said Larry Manziek, executive director of the International Precious Metals Institute, a Pensacola, Fla.-based trade organization. In the last year, electronic trading of platinum also increased, making the metal an easier investment while taking more of it out of circulation to ensure those funds, he said.

Scrap yards usually pay $50 to $100 per converter, but industry experts say the price varies among buyers and didn’t draw much attention until recent years, said Bruce Savage, a spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade organization.

Converter replacement costs are much higher, ranging from about $200 for a universal model to $1,000 or more for dealermade parts.

Boyer paid $572 and plans to spend $360 for converter protectors. He’s now so wary that he put off buying a new vehicle and instead started driving an older and lower-riding car to work.

Since January, 43 converter thefts were reported in downtown Cincinnati, compared with eight during the first half of 2007, said Lt. Mark Briede, police spokesman. The police plan to analyze crime data to determine when and where extra police presence might prevent thefts.

Jackson Township police in northeast Ohio are working with other jurisdictions to track down culprits – some 75 converters have been taken in their area near Canton this year. The idea that the converters can equal quick cash for drugs or groceries in a downturned economy might contribute to the rise in the crime, township police Maj. Dave Zink said.

In Phoenix, the police department’s metal thefts squad has grown to accommodate a rash of thefts, including converters. Authorities in Portland, Ore. and Memphis, Tenn., also report increases.

For those willing to spend extra, there are products such as the CatClamp, a tough-to-cut converter cage sold by Toledo, Ohio-based American Welders Inc., starting around $225. For those who aren’t, police say the best defense is a watchful eye, a bit of luck and the increased awareness among law enforcement.

Boyer says there’s no easy solution.

“I could teach my 6-year-old how to do it in probably 15 minutes,” he said. “It’s like stealing from somebody while their windows are down.”

Cincinnati auto repair shop owner Randy Rice empathizes.

He fixes damaged exhaust systems – one came in with the saw still inside – and lately, he replaced 10 converters stolen from cars on his lot, at his own expense. Now he’s adding a new security camera and extra lighting.

Across the Ohio River in Newport and Covington, Ky., officials tightened regulations for scrap yards, requiring that they copy the driver’s license of anyone trying to sell metal. Covington yards also hold metal for a month to allow for stolen items to be reclaimed.

That follows the advice of the scrap yard trade group, which urges its 1,600 members to document each transaction, making it easier for police to follow up. The organization also forwards Internet theft alerts from law enforcement agencies to its members.

At the Cincinnati Auto Recycling yard, manager Greg Chalk has stopped taking converters from the public and removes the devices immediately when he buys cars.

“That to me is the best way that us in this business can try to combat the problem, because it’s giving us all a bad name,” he said. “They think we’re all in cahoots to buy them and steal them and all that.”

On the Net:

Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries: www.isri.org

National Insurance Crime Bureau: www.nicb.org

Problem not here – yet

A combination of precaution and luck has kept catalytic converter thieves at bay in Letcher County – for now.

“I’ve heard of people going to Wal-Mart in Wise (Va.) and coming out and starting their car up and having it sound like a motorcycle,” Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb said. “But as for catalytic converter thefts here, I don’t even think we’ve arrested anyone for that. But it’s coming.”

Webb can remember one catalytic converter theft being reported at Holbrooktown near Sergent, but said the thief never was found.

Letcher County’s leading scrap metal dealer, Baker Metal at Thornton, has been able to keep would-be catalytic converter thieves in check by buying no more than one converter from an individual in most instances.

“We also require them to show a photo I.D.,” said Randall Baker.

Webb said the theft problem can be contained if all scrap metal dealers adopt policies like Baker Metal.

“They’re good to work with us,” Webb said.

Baker said the ease of removing a catalytic converter from a vehicle and the high market price combine to make the parts “pretty easy pickings for these rogues who don’t want to work.”


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