Police report rise in catalytic converter thefts from vehicles

By: Mary Beth Almond | C&G Newspapers | Published November 22, 2021

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BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP/TROY — Many law enforcement agencies across southeast Michigan have seen an uptick in catalytic converters thefts.

A catalytic converter, located underneath a car, is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system that reduces toxic gases and pollutants.

“The catalytic converter is an essential part of any vehicle, designed to reduce the pollutants and toxic gas emissions the engine produces,” explained Sgt. Jason Clark of the Troy Police Department. “Converters use precious metals like platinum, rhodium and palladium to complete this process. People have been stealing catalytic converters off of cars to sell these metals for scraps.”

Lt. Paul Schwab, of the Bloomfield Township Police Department, said the devices have been disappearing off of residents’ cars for months.    

“Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of catalytic converters that have been stolen, but that’s nothing really new — we’ve been getting hit for a while,” Schwab said. “And it’s not just in Bloomfield or Birmingham, it’s a tri-county crime.”

The Bloomfield Township Police Department typically investigates between one to three catalytic converter thefts a week, and about nine to a dozen a month, according to Schwab.

Clark said that the increase in such thefts may be due to the recent economic instability brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While this has been happening for years, a recent uptick in catalytic converter theft may be motivated by economic turbulence from the pandemic,” he said. “We are learning that thieves are receiving as much as $400-$500 per converter from local scrap yards. Platinum is currently priced at over $1,000 per ounce, while palladium is over $2,000 per ounce. The Michigan Legislature has put laws in place over the years to reduce these thefts and reduce the amount of cash transactions at scrap yards, but the current prices of precious metals have resulted in thieves and buyers working around the cash cap and paper trail requirements.”

Most often, the thefts occur in apartment, condominium and townhouse complexes, but that’s not all.

“We’ve also had reports where people have had them stolen in the driveways of their homes,” Schwab said. “And there’s been times when they’ve hit our car dealerships. I think the biggest one we got hit had eight stolen in one night.”

Certain vehicle models have been commonly targeted, particularly hybrid vehicles.

“Toyotas and Hondas are (often) targeted mostly because they are hybrid vehicles,” said Clark. “These cars have some of the highest quality catalytic converters. Hybrid vehicles contain a higher concentration of the precious medals found inside these devices, and they are usually less corroded than other models. Toyota and Honda converters also have a high resale value because they are the most expensive to replace.”

Clark did add that there are steps people can take to reduce the risk of being targeted; however, some can cost car owners.

“Look into vibration-triggered alarms. Some newer vehicles have a security setting that triggers the alarm when it senses vibrations. The sawing of your catalytic converter will be enough to set off these alarms,” he said. “Install a protective device. Catalytic converter theft has become so prominent that companies have started to sell protective devices. Unfortunately, high-quality devices and their installation will likely run you a few hundred bucks.”

There are steps everyone can take to reduce their risk.

“Be mindful of where you park. When you are at home, you can park in the garage to help avoid catalytic converter theft. Parking under street lights or in brightly lit locations can help deter theft. If the lot or parking garage you are in is seeing a lot of foot traffic, it will be hard for someone to steal your catalytic converter without being caught. Keep an eye out for security cameras in your parking area and try to find a spot visible to the cameras,” Clark said. “Lastly, be aware of your surroundings. Report suspicious activity in any parking lot. If you see someone who is kneeling down in between parked vehicles, please contact us.”

However, some thieves are getting bolder, according to the police. Authorities say thieves can take a catalytic converter off of a car in under a minute.

“It’s very fast. They have their battery operated saws and they just go under the car and ‘zip, zip,’ they’re done,” Schwab said. “They used to do this stuff in the middle of the night, but now people are getting these things taken off their cars during the day. … Usually, it is a two- or three-person crew. One person is driving a car and they’ll park their car next to a car to kind of block it — even if there are any cameras. They’ll look for apartment complexes where there are no cameras or cars that are parked in carports, where the cameras don’t show anything.”

The Bloomfield Township Police Department has been on the case for months, conducting extra patrols of apartment and condominium complexes and other targeted areas, to no avail.

“It’s just one of those things that’s really hard to combat against, because they are going to see us coming before we see them,” Schwab explained.

The Troy police also have not been able to put a stop to the recent thefts since the criminals can strike so quickly and then move on to a new target.

“It takes just a few minutes for a thief to saw the catalytic converter out of your car and leave you with thousands of dollars in damage,” Clark remarked.