Catalytic converters and saw. Courtesy of Lufkin Police Department.

Be careful where you park this weekend. Police say catalytic converter theft has been steadily rising since the pandemic began.

“It’s an ongoing problem, and it seems like we get a call every day,” says Officer Tommy Davis of the Richardson Police Department. “These suspects are taking the stolen catalytic converters to scrapyards, and the crooked yards are turning a blind eye and paying cash, no questions asked. On average, they get $50 per converter, but they can get up to $300 for certain models.”

Catalytic converters are part of the vehicle’s exhaust system and help to remove harmful emissions. It’s a time-consuming process for smelters to extract the platinum, palladium and rhodium, but it’s worth it for the cash they receive. Currently, rhodium is selling for $28,600 an ounce and palladium is at $2,773, making them more valuable than gold. That’s what makes stealing catalytic converters worth the risk for desperate crooks.

“Catching the thieves is really hard,” says Davis, “but in the past we’ve gotten lucky. We’ve had traffic stops where we found catalytic converters in the backseat of the car, sometimes after owners reported thefts that day. Often businesses with security surveillance systems share video of thieves, or citizens share video of guys under their car. These thieves are bold. We’ll have guys steal 7 from one parking lot, then move across the street and steal 4 more in broad daylight. For them, it’s easy. It’s like cutting through butter.”

Peter and Tara Cavazos came out to the driveway of their White Rock Valley home about 7:30 one morning in April to find a man in a white Kia Optima attempting to saw off the catalytic converter in Peter’s Toyota Tundra. In his haste to escape, the thief backed into another car before barreling down their back alley.

Another Lake Highlands dad asked to remain anonymous, but his crooks were successful. The theft occurred about midnight while his son was at work at a local fast food joint. The young man didn’t realize the catalytic converter had been stolen, but as he drove home he noticed his car was much louder than usual.

“He parks his Acura on the far side of the parking lot against some bushes so the customers can get in and out,” the dad explained. “The thieves just crawled under the car with a cable saw, and they were in-and-out in a minute. It doesn’t take long if they know how to use a saw. It’s not a bad gig if you can get it, I guess. All you need is a $10 saw from Harbor Freight. It was a $500 repair, which was cheap, because Acura wanted $3000.”

Marshall Poyner at Hondew Auto Repair said many of the thieves working in a hurry in the dark do an amateurish hack job as they remove the converters, and that makes it difficult – and expensive – to install a new unit.

“These thieves cut with a saw, and it damages both the converter and the adjacent pipes,” said Poyner. “We don’t weld here, we bolt on, and the cheapest way out of the mess may be to go to the muffler shop. They’ll have a converter – not the swiftest, not the greatest quality – but they can weld it right where the thieves have cut. It’s much cheaper to do it that way.”

Poyner said he’s seen repair bills vary from $250-4,000.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, there’s been a rise in catalytic converter thefts nationwide since the pandemic began. In 2019, an average of 282 were stolen each month. In 2020, the average rose to 1,203. In December alone, 2,347 were stolen.

The most targeted vehicles in Richardson are the Mitsubishi Outlander, the Honda CRV, Accord and Element, the Hyundai Santa Fe and Tucson, and the Kia Sorento. Older models are more desirable to thieves, and they like vehicles which ride up off the ground so they can get underneath to do their dirty work.

Davis had several tips for folks who want to minimize their chances of being the victim of this crime:

  • Park in well-lit and public areas of parking lots.
  • Scratch or etch TXLP and your license plate number on your catalytic converter shell to aid in retrieval.
  • Install an antitheft device, usually a strong steel cage fastened around the converter.
  • Look out for people working under vehicles.
  • Beware of drilling, grinding or cutting sounds.

Catalytic Converter Thefts by Month. Courtesy of National Insurance Crime Bureau.

A catalytic converter thief was seen on surveillance video about 7:30 a.m. jumping into this white Kia Optima outside two LH homes in April.