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Thefts Of Catalytic Converters Up Four-Fold in Kansas City In The Last Year

Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Catalytic converters are anti-pollution devices that are on almost all vehicles that burn gas.

The price of the three precious metals in the anti-pollution devices in almost all vehicles has skyrocketed. And as the price has climbed, so have thefts.

Catalytic converter thefts in Kansas City have increased more than four-fold since 2019 and the problem is getting worse.

“We have seen a dramatic increase from 2019 to 2020 and we are on track to see an even bigger increase in 2021,” said Dawn Jones, a detective with the Kansas City Police Department.

So far this year there have been 266 catalytic converter thefts in Kansas City alone. At the current pace, thefts this year will top 3,000.

Catalytic converters are anti-pollution devices that are on almost all vehicles that burn gas.

“I don't know the science behind it, I'm just a trooper," Missouri State Highway Patrol Corporal Nate Bradley said. "But when the hot exhaust comes out of the engine from the manifold, they'll pass through the catalytic converter and it reduces the spent emissions from that exhaust.”

It works because of three metals most people probably know little about: platinum, palladium and rhodium.

“The price of those, the value of those metals, has skyrocketed over the last few years,” said Bradley, who investigates all things having to do with auto theft.

"Skyrocket" doesn’t quite do the phenomenon justice.

Last week palladium was selling for about $2,300 an ounce. Five years ago, it sold for about $500 an ounce.

Rhodium last week averaged more than $19,000 an ounce. Five years ago, the price was $640 an ounce. That's a roughly 2,800% increase.

Bradley said an entire industry has sprung up around stolen catalytic converters.

“So there is kind of an underground network of — and I use the term 'businesses' loosely — businesses engaged in the purchase and dismantling and then smelting of stolen catalytic converters,” he told KCUR.

Not surprisingly, when the precious metal prices spiked, so did thefts.

In 2017, there were only 92 catalytic converters stolen in Kansas City, according to KCPD data.

In Wichita, Kansas, thefts nearly tripled between 2019 and 2020, according to the New York Times. And in St. Louis, 50 catalytic converters were stolen in 2019. Last year the number soared to 420.

But it's not just a Missouri problem or a Kansas problem. It's a problem everywhere.

“It's certainly something that we're dealing with and we have made arrests on recently,” Constable Cheri-Lee Smith of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Leduc, Alberta, told KCUR.

The problem police have with charging theft of catalytic converters is that there are no identifying marks on them. So even if police find multiple converters in someone's possession, it's almost impossible to trace them back to a car.

"There is no way to trace them back to an owner. It does make it difficult to prove the identity of that owner of that catalytic converter," Smith said.

Because the problem spans the globe, an industry group called theInstitute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) has someone dedicated to working with law enforcement.

"ISRI has also formed a Catalytic Converter Theft Working Group which is working with national law enforcement organizations and other stakeholders to develop a strategy," Brady Mills, ISRI's director of law enforcement outreach, said in an email to KCUR.

Police suggest etching your catalytic converter with the vehicle identification number or marking it with heat-resistant paint and taking a picture. If you have a garage or fenced area, they advise to keep your vehicle there.

There is also a move to try and tighten up the laws regulating scrap metal.

In Missouri, that charge is being led by Rep. Don Mayhew, a Rolla Republican, who just introduced legislation to require scrap dealers to report catalytic converter purchases and the state to create a database, among other requirements.

Mayhew didn’t know it was such a problem until he heard from the Pulaski County Health Department, whose van was victimized three times.

“Each time they have to replace the catalytic converter. I've been told that cost them about $5,000. So they're out $15,000," he said.

Bradley, of the Missouri Highway Patrol, said the only way to make a real dent in this growing problem is to attack the supply chain, not the people doing the stealing.

“When the industry turns a blind eye to it and says, 'It's okay, everybody's making money,' then we've got problems” he said.

You deserve to know what your taxpayer dollars are paying for and what public officials are doing on your behalf – I’ll work to report on irresponsible government spending in the Kansas City area and shed light on controversies that slow government down. And when you hear my voice in the morning, you know you’re getting everything you need to start your day. Email me at sam@kcur.org, find me on Twitter @samzeff or call me at 816-235-5004.
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