You parked your car in a safe, well-lit location overnight, but when you start it the next morning it gives off the harsh, throaty roar of a racecar.
The racket instantly tells you that you’re the victim of catalytic converter thieves, who have been stealing the air pollution control devices in droves over the past year or so.
Oregon last month adopted a law to help curb the thefts, and we’d like Washington to act, too, as part of a solution to this nationwide problem.
Catalytic converters are a component of exhaust systems required in U.S. cars since 1975. They’re mounted under cars between the engine and muffler and convert air pollutants to less harmful gases.
The devices do this through use of rare precious metals such as palladium, rhodium and platinum. The pandemic has limited supply of these minerals by curtailing mining, particularly in South Africa, a major producer of rhodium. Global demand also has increased due to stricter pollution control standards, particularly in China.
True to the rules of supply and demand, prices for these metals have soared. Rhodium prices, for example, increased 3,000% in five years and reached a record $21,900 an ounce this year, according to the New York Times. That’s 12 times the price of gold.
The presence of these valuable metals — and the ease with which catalytic converters can be cut out of a car in just minutes — has made the devices attractive pickings for metal thieves.
The local area has had a moderate rash of converter thefts this year. Nineteen cases were reported in Cowlitz County from November to mid-February. Nationwide, CBS News reports catalytic converter thefts in the U.S. rose from about 280 per month in 2019 to roughly 1,200 a month the following year.
High-riding vehicles such as pickups and SUVs, which are easy to crawl under, and gas/electric hybrids, which put less wear on catalytic converters, are particularly vulnerable.
Metal thieves can get several hundred dollars per unit at a scrap yard, but replacing a catalytic converter can cost the car owner $2,000 or more. It’s illegal to drive a car without one.
In an effort to curb the thefts, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on June 23 signed a bill prohibiting scrap metal business from purchasing or receiving catalytic converters, except from commercial sellers or owners of the vehicle from which the catalytic converter was removed. The measure passed the Legislature with near-unanimous approval and takes effect Jan. 1.
Washington has no such law on the books. Scrap metal businesses must create a record of each purchase, pledge, or trade of nonferrous or private metal property from a member of the general public. However, precious metals are not included in the requirement.
So as it stands now, catalytic converter thieves can easily take their looted converters to Washington. We urge Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature to pass legislation such as Oregon’s as part of a regional approach to the problem. Piecemeal approaches will not work, but there are lots of approaches to adopt or adapt.
Some counties in New York State have proposed requiring scrap yards to wait two weeks before paying cash for converters, and to keep records of such transactions for three years.
Legislators should also consider more severe penalties. The South Carolina House, for example, has approved a bill that would make buying or selling stolen catalytic converters a separate crime that could bring up to three years in prison.
Washington could also learn from Colorado, where AAA and the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority have partnered in a program to etch serial numbers on catalytic converters. The number will then be entered into a database searchable by law enforcement, salvage yards and recyclers to ensure the part hasn’t been stolen. The program is free.
Texas just adopted a law requiring people who sell a catalytic converter to a metal recycling business to provide the year, make, model and vehicle identification number (VIN) for the vehicle it was removed from and a copy of the vehicle’s title. It also will increase the penalty for knowingly selling or buying a stolen catalytic converter. And it adopts a five-day holding period from the day the recycler buys them before they can sell or dispose of them.
This is not petty crime we’re talking about. These thieves are costing car owners thousands of dollars in repairs and, in the case of older cars, forcing them to scrap perfectly good vehicles that are not worth sinking so much money into.