Thieves get quick cash from metal theft of stolen catalytic converters

Thieves get quick cash from metal theft of stolen catalytic converters

Fabian Garcia

They may not be glittering in diamonds, but platinum-lined catalytic converters – known as “cats” on the street – have become a hot commodity for thieves and buyers running the black market for their precious metals inside.

The Sacramento State Police Media Log has reports of two catalytic converters being stolen this semester from vehicles on campus in addition to five stolen during the fall semester.

Sac State Police Chief Mark Iwasa said he and his department became aware of the problem early last semester at a regional law enforcement consortium. He discovered a converter theft trend had sprung up in the north end of the county and parts of Placer County.

“We took that information and brought it back to the campus,” Iwasa said. “Sure enough, I think it took about six weeks or something, and they descended upon us.”

Iwasa said a cluster of thefts occurred within two months of notifying the campus through a Facebook posting on Sept. 4.

Soon after, an anonymous source called the department identifying the potential thieves’ car.

“This person took note of the car and the individuals in the car and gave us a call,” Iwasa said. “We used the surveillance system on campus to go back and look (at) all the video that we have that surrounds the campus to look for a car that fit (the) description. And this person did a really good job describing it to us.”

Iwasa said once the department posted a description of the car on its Facebook page, someone else called two weeks later saying they had seen the vehicle and an arrest was made.

“They called us and we just happened to be right there,” Iwasa said. “(We) pulled the car over and they had just stolen two (catalytic converters). We were able to arrest three individuals in that case.”

Unfortunately, catalytic converter thefts go way beyond the confines of Sac State.

A January 2013 article from the Sacramento Bee said about 180 catalytic converters were reported stolen in Roseville last year.

With so many converters being taken in the area, the question stands as to what exactly these devices are and why they are so popular among criminals.

According to – a private online scrap recycling service – a catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system helping reduce the output of gas contaminants.

Converters sit at the bottom of a vehicle next to the muffler and filter out incoming chemicals with the help of precious metals inside including platinum, palladium and rhodium.  

Officer Ken Leonard of the Sacramento Police Department, a member of the Metal Theft Task Force, said those valuable metals are what thieves are after and they tend to run in organized crews of middle-aged men.

“They’re not going to disassemble these things,” Leonard said. “They’re going to leave them intact because if they break it apart, actually it becomes worth nothing.”

Leonard said metal recyclers set the purchase price based off the make and model of a catalytic converter.  

Recyclers then ship the parts off in their original form to India and China where the converters are then broken down. From there, the metal is extracted, reformed and then sold back to the states.

“It’s crazy. It gets sent over to China, gets remolded and they sell it back to us,” Leonard said.

Leonard also added Toyotas built after 1974 were most likely to get hit because they have the most valuable converters.

“Toyota trucks and SUVs (make up) about 80 percent of the vehicles targeted,” Leonard said. “All trucks and SUVs are vulnerable because they’re high off the ground…but the Toyotas have a little bit more valuable catalytic converters than some vehicles. And the way they sit under the vehicles makes it easy to get to.”

According to the Sacramento Police Department’s website, metal recyclers will pay anywhere between $50 to $250 for catalytic converters.

However, Leonard said on average recyclers would usually pay a little bit more on the street.

“The average price is truly about $110 to $120 on a good Toyota catalytic converter,” Leonard said.

Leonard also said most legitimate recyclers in the area would not take catalytic converters.

Manager Brian Tran of Sunshine Steel Enterprises Corporation, located off of Belvedere Avenue and Florin-Perkins Road, said the police had instructed him not to take any catalytic converters from the public.

Tran said he was not sure if other recyclers in Sacramento would take them.

South Sacramento Pick-N-Pull employee J.J. Abero is in the business of buying used cars and selling back their parts at a cheaper price.

Abero said he was well aware of the law regarding catalytic converter purchases and insists he has never taken an individual one from anybody.

“It is illegal to resell used catalytic converters, so we scrap them,” Abero said. “I would have to report it if I’d seen it myself. I mean, (there are) cameras all over here, so if they see me with a catalytic converter with another person, and I didn’t stay in here, then it’d probably be on me.”

Abero also said he had seen private dismantlers in Rancho Cordova selling catalytic converters before.

“In Rancho Cordova, by that Pick-N-Pull over there, there’s a whole bunch of dismantlers and I’ve seen them selling some used cats,” Abero said.

One of Abero’s co-workers, Richard Perez, said his Toyota pickup had been the victim of a catalytic converter theft. Perez said the situation was financially frustrating to say the least.

“It really sucks because trying to get a new cat is either virtually impossible or super-duper expensive,” Perez said. “I had to buy an after-market one for $800.”

Victims usually pay an average of $1000 to get converters replaced.

Since there are a number of ways to keep a catalytic converter from being stolen, Officer Leonard said he recommends drivers start out with one specific strategy for prevention.

“It’s called Etch & Catch,” Leonard said. “Basically, we engrave the vehicle’s license plate number onto the actual catalytic converter. So this (is an) event we hold for free for the public about twice a year.”

An Etch & Catch event allows people to go to a local Jiffy Lube, get a free ticket and have their catalytic converters engraved and highlighted all courtesy of the Sacramento Police Department.

Leonard said when criminals see the white highlighted engraving they should know to stay away. Even if they decide to take it, however, police would still have a much easier time tracking it in the black market.

“This is not the best solution, but it’s free and it helps,” Leonard said. “So it does two things for us: No. 1, if it gets stolen we can track it because there’s a white temp paint we want to illuminate the fact that this has been marked, so they might not even take it to begin with if it’s marked.”

Being able to track stolen catalytic converters is essential to place a charge on someone, Leonard said.

If the police know where a converter came from, a thief would most likely be charged with a felony. Otherwise, authorities would have to let them go.

“That’s the biggest problem with catalytic converters,” Leonard said. “When I got that guy with 25 in his house, there was nothing we could do because we can’t prove what cars he took them from (and) because there are no numbers on these catalytic converters.”