Law enforcement see rise in catalytic converter theft
Catalytic converters contain precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium inside the converter have recyclers paying big bucks in a hard-to-track crime.
BRAINERD — An electric saw and a pry-bar is all one needs and in less than a minute, a catalytic converter can be stolen from a vehicle and gone.
In 2021, the Crow Wing County Sheriff’s Office received approximately 40 theft reports, triple the number of cases in 2020. That rate slowed so far in 2022, said Krista Grater, an investigative analyst with the sheriff’s office in an email.
Catalytic converters contain precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, which convert the worst of a vehicle's toxic pollutants into less harmful carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor. The part can be on gas vehicles produced after 1975 and is found in exhaust systems after the engine and before the muffler.
Crow Wing is not alone with this theft trend. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau , catalytic converter thefts across the country increased from roughly 3,300 in 2019 to more than 14,000 in 2020, a 325% increase in a single year.
Noticing an uptick in converter thefts in 2021, Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted found he could not find accurate information on past thefts in Baxter.
“I felt the need to start tracking them at that time, so internally the custom attribute was created,” Exsted said. “Without the attribute, they are difficult to track, so I’m assuming we had several others earlier in 2021.”
Exsted found nine reported converter thefts since August 2021.
Most thefts around Crow Wing County are in Fords, specifically Ford trucks, Econoline vans, recreational vehicles and buses, while the next most common vehicles are Dodge Rams and Toyota Priuses. Most cases involved parking lots of businesses and occurred overnight.
Grater is compiling data from other law enforcement agencies in the county on their reports of converter theft.
“(Tracking) locations of thefts, vehicles targeted, dates and times of thefts, and any suspect info gathered helped to keep our officers and agencies informed on frequently hit locations and what to look for while patrolling,” Grater wrote.
Catalytic converters are targeted because most have no identifying numbers to track them and the precious metals inside the converter have recyclers paying between $50 to $250 per catalytic converter, Grater reported.
Larger vehicles are targeted for their ease of access, said Brainerd’s Investigation Supervisor Lt. Mike Kulzer. He said solving property crime in itself is difficult and a crime that takes little effort or time makes it even more difficult. And that is only if it is noticed and reported right away.
“If you're not someone who is auto savvy or mechanically inclined, you may get into your vehicle and it seems to be running a little louder than usual or running a little rough,” Kulzer said. “I might not take it in right away, because I'm still going from point A to point B just fine. Then by the time they find out that there is an issue, whether they inspect it themselves or have a mechanic diagnose it, it's even more difficult to determine where and when that exactly happened.”
Last year, the Minnesota Legislature created the catalytic converter theft prevention pilot program to deter the theft of catalytic converters by marking them with unique identification numbers. The law requires labels be installed at no cost to vehicle owners. Businesses cannot charge for the installation of a program label, but they can require another service, such as an oil change be performed, to install a label.
Labels are installed by sticking them onto a cool-to-the-touch catalytic converter. A fluid is painted onto the label, which, once a vehicle starts, causes the unique number to be etched into the metal. Once registered, the number allows law enforcement to trace a converter back to a specific vehicle if stolen and later recovered.
Participating in the program is Shannon's Auto Body in Brainerd, with the business listed on the Minnesota Commerce Department website. Service Manager Rob Lang said labor doesn't change much, but repair costs will vary based on the price of the part.
“I mean, you can do one that's going to be $500 to $600, and then you can have one that's $4,000,” Lang said of repair costs. “I mean, it just depends on the part.”
All law enforcement departments asked people to pay particular attention to late-night suspicious vehicles at business or apartment complexes and reminded the public to report any suspicious activity seen. These thefts only take a few minutes to happen and can be very costly for the vehicle owner, they noted.
“You hear so many people say, ‘Well, I saw something and I didn't really want to bug you guys,’” Kulzer said. “Our department would much rather go investigate something and determine it to be nothing than miss an opportunity to hold somebody accountable for theft. … And if it turns out to be nothing, that's what we're here for.”
Top 15 vehicles targeted for catalytic converter theft
- Chevrolet Express
- Ford Econoline
- Ford F250
- Honda Accord
- Honda CRV
- Honda Element
- Honda Odyssey
- Hyundai Santa Fe
- Hyundai Tucson
- Kia Sportage
- Mitsubishi Eclipse
- Mitsubishi Lancer
- Mitsubishi Outlander
- Toyota Prius
- Toyota Tundra
Source: Minnesota Department of Commerce.