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Kansas City saw catalytic converter thefts drop significantly this year — here's why

A pair of gloved hands can be seen holding a piece of metal on the undercarriage of a vehicle.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Catalytic converter thefts dropped more than 70% in Kansas City, Missouri, from last year.

After years of huge increases in thefts, experts say a drop in price for the precious metals, plus legislation to regulate metal dealers are deterring people from stealing the anti-pollution devices.

Holiday cheer rarely, if ever, comes in the form of catalytic converter news. But 2023 is different.

Catalytic converter thefts are down. In fact, thefts dropped more than 70% in Kansas City, Missouri, from last year. Kansas City police attribute the drop to a combination of things.

"More awareness from car owners, marking the convertors so they can't be sold as easily and enforcing laws/codes at the businesses that purchase convertors from the public,” Capt. Timon Holcomb, KCPD Property Crimes Commander, said in a statement.

Last year, 2,176 catalytic converters were stolen in Kansas City. By the end of November this year, that number was only 570.

Thefts are down across the city, but have fallen most in the Central Patrol Division that includes downtown, Westport and the Plaza. In 2022, 820 catalytic converters were stolen in that division, according to KCPD data. As of Nov. 29, 2023, that was down to 142 converters. At the current rate of thefts, Central Patrol would end 2023 with about 150 thefts, an 82% drop.

Kansas also saw a drop in thefts — a decrease that actually started last year. In 2021, 2,728 catalytic converters were reported stolen, according to Kansas Bureau of Investigation data. Last year that number dropped to 2,295, a 16% decrease. (Those numbers don’t include Kansas City, Kansas, which reports crimes differently to the state.) The KBI doesn’t yet have numbers for 2023.

Falling prices for precious metals

Thefts are also dropping across the country.

“We're hearing from both law enforcement and from insurance companies that the number of thefts is declining, and there's a couple of reasons,” said Patrick Olsen, editor-in-chief of Carfax, which keeps data on catalytic converter thefts because it receives millions of repair records every day.

Olsen said one reason for the decrease is that the price of the metals inside the converters has collapsed.

Catalytic converters reduce harmful emissions when car exhaust passes through a combination of palladium, rhodium and platinum — a trio of the most expensive metals on the planet. In the metal business these are known as platinum group metals, or PGMs.

Between July 2020 and July 2021, catalytic converter theft grew 293%, State Farm insurance estimated. That coincided with a spike in the price of PGMs. On April 30, 2021, rhodium hit its highest price ever, $29,500 an ounce. Today, the price is around $4,400, an 85% decline. In the past two years, palladium prices have dropped 64% and platinum is down 25%.

There is also a legislative and law enforcement component.

“There have been states nationwide, including Minnesota and Illinois, that are targeting precious metal dealers and making sure that they can explain where their precious metals come from, and installing pretty hefty fines if they can’t,” Olsen said.

The Kansas Legislature last session overwhelmingly passed a bill that imposes tighter regulations on scrap metal dealers and forces them to register with the attorney general. Information on who bought what goes into a KBI database that law enforcement can use to look for patterns.

Missouri is among the states that has not acted. A bill was pre-filed last week that requires “the vehicle identification number of the vehicle from which the catalytic converter was removed” to be marked on the converter. Current Missouri law and the proposed legislation carves out an exception if the seller has “an existing business relationship with the scrap metal dealer.”

This creates a problem in Missouri, according to a report from the National Salvage Vehicle Reporting Program.

“This law exacerbates catalytic converter theft because it shields illegal activity from being identifiable,” concluded the nonprofit organization that works closely with federal and local law enforcement to combat car and car part theft.

“If we don’t fix the laws completely, it’s still attractive” to steal catalytic converters, program administrator Howard Nusbaum said.

Prosecutors are cracking down on catalytic converter theft

Prosecutions for catalytic converter theft are on the rise across the country. In October, three members of a California family pleaded guilty to shipping $600 million of stolen catalytic converters to New Jersey. Also in October, federal authorities in Minnesota charged four men with selling $21 million worth of stolen catalytic converters. In June, local authorities charged 11 people who worked at a Philadelphia towing company with stealing $8 million of catalytic converters over three years.

The biggest case in the Kansas City area involves 56-year-old James Spick, who pleaded guilty in July to one count of conspiracy to commit interstate transportation of stolen property. Spick ran J&J Recycling on Truman Road in Independence. Between 2018 and 2021, the government alleged, Spick made more than $11 million selling stolen catalytic converters to companies in four states, including Missouri.

“Beginning in at least 2014, Spick bought catalytic converters at his business from individuals whom he paid in cash. The cash payments attracted thieves, particularly addicts,” according to the 2022 indictment.

The government last month filed its pre-sentence investigation into Spick and also filed a motion to seize some of his assets. Spick is awaiting sentencing.

Missouri State Highway Patrol Cpl. Nate Bradley, who worked on the Spick case, said high-profile prosecutions, and a collapse of PGM prices, have thieves changing tactics.

“If they can’t make money from stealing it, then they won’t steal it,” he told KCUR. “We have seen the switch back to copper thefts instead of catalytic converters.”

Of course, if the price of PGMs goes back up, so could thefts of catalytic converters. And demand for new catalytic converters hasn't waned. Last year, almost 14 million cars and light trucks were sold in the U.S., according to the Department of Energy. Some cars take up to four converters, which translates to a possible need for up to 50 million new catalytic converters, according to the National Salvage Vehicle Reporting Program.

That doesn’t include the rest of the world, including the expanding Chinese market.

“As a result of poor air quality, China has implemented enhanced inspection requirements for key emission control components such as catalytic converters,” according to the organization.

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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