If you park your car or truck on the street or in a driveway on the Northside, the question seems to be not “if” someone will try to steal your catalytic converter, but “when.”
The answer to “How can we stop it?” will depend on a number of factors, ranging from possible revisions of Colorado laws regulating recyclers and salvage yards that buy the devices, to success at addressing a vehicle theft surge that Denver Police say appears to be worsening the converter theft wave.
The national, years-long epidemic of catalytic converter thefts has been going full throttle this summer throughout metro Denver. Rare is the day that Northside neighbors on social media don’t report that a thief has sawn through the exhaust pipe of someone’s car or light truck to steal the catalytic converter — an anti-pollution device the federal government has required on all new gas-powered U.S. cars and light trucks since 1975 — ostensibly to sell to a junk, salvage, or recycling business.
The experience of West Highlands resident Peter Richards was typical. Around 9:30 p.m. the night of July 19 he heard the sounds of metal cutting and went outside to see the miscreants flee in a black pickup truck with the catalytic converter from his 1995 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck. The process took perhaps two minutes. “I was more shocked than anything,” Richards told The Denver North Star.
Four days later a Sunnyside resident posted a photo on NextDoor of the man she wrote had attempted to steal her converter; a man Richards noted appeared to be the same as the one who got away with his. Residents in the same comment thread noted their own recent theft experiences, in Harkness Heights, West Highland, and Berkeley.
Denver Police statistics showed 287 converter thefts in District 1 as of the end of July.
The “why” of the thefts is clear: Catalytic converters contain precious metals such as platinum and palladium that have soared in price over the past several years as demand for them has risen for automotive pollution controls as well as for jewelry and industrial uses. Platinum, for example, was selling for about $600 per ounce in global commodities markets in May 2020; the price was nearly $1,046 as of July 30 of this year.
The problem isn’t new, either. One article on the archive website Science History noted a national wave of converter thefts back in 2014, during a surge in platinum prices to more than $1,400 per ounce.
The financial equation works better for successful thieves than for their victims. For a one-minute foray underneath an unattended vehicle with a battery-powered Sawzall, the thief who makes a clean getaway might get $150 or more for the catalytic converter from a local salvage yard or recycler.
As for the vehicle owner? Eric and Heidi Schneider of Berkeley returned from a Fourth of July weekend trip on July 6 to find the converter missing from their 1992 Toyota pickup, parked along the curb in front of their house. An auto repair shop quoted them a converter replacement price of about $1,200, for a vehicle worth perhaps $2,500 given its age and mileage. The repair also was less than the cost of their deductible, so insurance did not cover the cost.
While some insurers offer catalytic converter theft riders on their auto policies, not all of them do. And not all policies fully cover the cost of replacement, given deductibles that must be paid. “Many of us, like myself, have to just pay out of pocket,” said Stan Ford, owner of Treasures Outlet in the Berkeley-Regis neighborhood who lost the converter on his 1998 Ford Econoline van to thieves who sped off in an Audi with no license plates.
What are authorities doing to blunt this crime wave? Officer Jacob Herrera of District 1 said Denver Police are treating the converter thefts as part of a larger surge in thefts of vehicles, auto parts, and vehicle contents. Herrera said year-to-date car theft reports as of the end of July totaled 1,045, double the amount at the same period last year. Although police will investigate converter thefts when the victim requests that officers come to the premises to take a report — as opposed to thefts reported online — Herrera admits that arrest rates for such crimes are low.
Homeowner reports are critical, especially when there’s an eyewitness or evidence such as doorbell or surveillance camera video, which can help establish theft patterns. But most of the thefts occur unnoticed in the late evening hours, and they happen quickly. “We’d have to be right on top of it to be there while they’re cutting the ‘cat’ off,” he said.
However, homeowners who confront thieves caught in the act are taking an unnecessary risk, Herrera added. In at least five such cases the theft turned into a robbery. Ford related the tale of one Berkeley-Regis resident who the thief came after with the same battery-powered Sawzall he was using to steal the converter. “Take pictures, call us, but don’t go after them,” Herrera said. “These people are dangerous.”
Herrera said police saw a distinct slowdown in converter thefts in July after District 1 and 4 officers arrested members of an auto theft crew in west Denver, part of a crackdown led by the city’s auto theft task force. “The people who steal the cars are the same who steal the ‘cats,” he said. Penalties for auto and auto parts thieves can be stiffer as well. Theft of a converter worth $150 is a misdemeanor, while a vehicle or parts worth more than $1,000 can be a felony with up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Further progress may require addressing the “demand” side: the businesses that pay for recycled converters. Colorado law currently requires scrap yards, junk yards, salvagers, and other purchasers of so-called commodity metals — generally those worth more than 50 cents per pound for recycling purposes — to take ID information and keep photographic records of sellers (with several exceptions, such as those selling items such as soda cans).
Law enforcement is able to inspect these records, but the law only requires the data to be kept for six months. Further, violations of the recordkeeping statute are only misdemeanors unlikely to get much attention from local prosecutors. Also, as Herrera notes, thieves can sell the converters in other states that may not have Colorado’s ID and recordkeeping requirements.
Programs in place to curb thefts encourage citizens to spray paint their converter and etch their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the device, to make it readily identifiable as stolen. What may increase the effectiveness of such a deterrent would be penalties for businesses that buy such marked converters or incentives for them to report attempted sales of them.