Catalytic converter thefts have lasting impact

Emily Cutts, Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.
·13 min read

Mar. 23—It only takes minutes for thieves to remove a catalytic converter from the bottom of a vehicle parked in the street or in a lot, but the theft has lasting effects on those vehicle owners.

For Rochester business owner Mike Reps, it's cost thousands of dollars to repair and upgrade his trucks and security around his business, and the threat has put him on edge.

"One morning, one of the guys started the truck up and he's like 'this thing sounds like it's mad at me,'" said Reps, general manager and owner of Two Men and a Truck. "He didn't know what was going on, and so we went out there and looked at it and, sure enough, the converter was gone. I was just really angry."

Reps' business was hit twice, on Jan. 25 and Feb. 10. The first time the thief made away with the converter. The second time, the person left the converter only partially cut off. Reps has taken precautions to better secure his business, including remaining in close contact with law enforcement, but still hasn't gotten back his peace of mind.

"I feel like I'm always on edge, especially in the evenings when I'm not here and I'm not in control of the situation and just that fear before a busy day that we are going to have something really bad happen," Reps said.

Frustrated about the continued thefts in the city, Reps spoke to the Rochester City Council at a March 1 meeting. Since then, Reps has felt there has been more movement among law enforcement and business owners on the issue.

Repair shops are busy

At Lesmeister Fleet Service, service manager Mike Lesmeister has been in the business for nearly five decades.

"Just in the last 12 months, it's the most I've ever seen," Lesmeister said of the number of catalytic converter thefts.

Lesmeister, who is Reps' mechanic, said that from his perspective in the fleet service business, pickups and medium-duty trucks that run on gasoline are the most frequently targeted. Diesel vehicles are less attractive to thieves because the catalytic converters have serial numbers on them and need to be registered.

On Reps' truck, Lesmeister installed a $1,200 steel and iron shield covering the catalytic converter to deter future thefts. The 1/8 inch-thick steel shield weighs about 125 to 150 pounds, according to Reps. In the moving business, there is a limitation on how much a truck can weight and that means the shield takes a "valuable 125 pounds" from customer items that could be taken.

When Reps' first truck was hit, it was out for nearly a month to get repaired. He estimated it cost him between $15,000 and $20,000 in lost revenue.

"I say all this with numerical figures to back it up, but we are in our winter time. If this happens in summer, we're screwed," Reps said. "I'm not joking. If they come and take a truck in the middle of the summer and we have 13 customers waiting for us that day to go serve and I have five, six, seven trucks down because thieves came and took converters, I'm screwed."

'Now it is just because someone has hijacked it'

At Darrel's Muffler & Complete Automotive Repair on North Broadway Avenue in Rochester, the rate at which vehicles are coming in with stolen or cut catalytic converters is something exhaust professional Greg "Darrel" Pfeifer has never seen before in his decades-long career.

In the business since 1976, Pfeifer, who was known as Little Darrel when shop founder Darrel Zweifel was still working, said the uptick in thefts began about nine months ago and has only gotten worse from there.

Standing under a pickup that had been lifted to nearly the shop's ceiling last week, Pfeifer pointed at the cuts and said, "This job was done by someone who knew what they were doing."

The same surge of thefts is being seen at the Muffler Center on Second Street Southwest in Rochester. Brian Anderson, who runs the shop with his dad, said he's had a steady stream of customers coming in saying they turned their cars off for the night or went into work and come out to start it up to find their vehicles are now "louder than loud."

"Usually if I did a converter job, it was because a customer was having a problem," Anderson said. "Now it is just because someone has hijacked it."

Why are they necessary?

In the years after the Clean Air Act of 1970 was passed, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency had the legal authority to regulate pollution from cars and other forms of transportation.

The new regulations meant that catalytic converters had become mandatory to help curb harmful emissions coming from a vehicle's exhaust. Unleaded gasoline also became the norm, as leaded gas deactivates the palladium in catalytic converters, according to Wayne Seames, a professor in the University of North Dakota's Department of Chemical Engineering.

But what do catalytic converters do? Seames said they help complete the imperfect combustion process of the fuel and turn lingering carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide.

"The catalyst that is in the converter will cause them to react with more oxygen so that more of them are CO2," Seames said.

As more and more auto manufacturers make electric vehicles, catalytic converters will likely be a thing of the past for passenger vehicles.

Why are they attractive to thieves?

Inside catalytic converters are the noble metals palladium, rhodium and platinum. The metals are worth thousands of dollars per ounce, and while catalytic converters contain only small amounts, thieves can still get between $200-$400 per converter.

According to Metalary.com, rhodium was valued at $25,250 per troy ounce, palladium was valued at $2,478.50 per troy ounce and platinum was priced at $852.90 per troy ounce on March 17. A troy ounce is a unit of measure used for weighing precious and noble metals and is about 10% heavier than an ounce.

Inside catalytic converters are a substrate and monolith that looks like a honeycomb type of structure, said Dr. Bassem Ramadan, Head of the Kettering University Department of Mechanical Engineering in Flint, Mich. The monolith is then dipped in a wash coat that contains platinum, palladium and rhodium. Once it dries, it becomes a solid. Depending on the size and type of catalytic converter, it can contain anywhere from 1 1/2 grams to 15 grams of the noble metal, according to Ramadan.

"The catalytic converter is considered to be an after treatment, an exhaust after treatment, after the gases have been created, produced by the combustion process in the engine, now they are getting out of the engine, flowing through the exhaust you have the catalytic converter there to clean up those exhaust gases," Ramadan said.

Researchers have tried for years to come up with catalysts as good as palladium, platinum and rhodium, but have been so far unsuccessful.

Hard crime to solve

There are a number of reasons why catalytic converters thefts can be hard to solve.

"It's a crime that can be perpetrated fairly quickly and under the cover of darkness," Rochester Police Capt. Casey Moilanen said. "As long as you have an opportunity to slide underneath someone's vehicle and have a battery-powered cutting tool, you can remove it from under a vehicle."

Converters on gasoline vehicles also have no distinctive markings tying them to a specific vehicle, so law enforcement has no way of tracking down the rightful owner.

"If we are going to charge someone for possession of stolen property, you need to be able to show who that victim was," Moilanen said. "Because there are no markings, it's difficult to do just that."

Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Scott Behrns said there is no real deterrent to stealing a converter as people who are caught are released "too quickly on property crimes."

"To those that are doing it, you're going to get caught at some point," Behrns said. "Hopefully you get caught by us and not an angry homeowner or you could get caught in a dangerous situation. Eventually it will come to an end."

'We need a victim'

While drivers in southeastern Minnesota seem to be taking protection of their converters into their own hands, that isn't the case everywhere.

In Los Angeles County, California law enforcement agencies have hosted so-called "Etch and Catch" events where owners can come to have their vehicle's license plate or partial vehicle identification number etched onto the catalytic converter using a carbon-tipped engraver. The etchings don't stop thieves but could help law enforcement prove that a converter has been stolen.

"The entire Southern California region has seen a significant increase in catalytic converter thefts. Law enforcement has made numerous arrests of individuals believed to be involved in these thefts, but has had difficulty obtaining criminal filing or convictions because it is difficult to identify victims," L.A. County Sheriff's Deputy Abe Bedoyan wrote in an to the Post Bulletin. "The problem is that catalytic converters have no identifying markers that could help law enforcement identify a victim. The 'Etch and Catch' operations help to resolve this issue. Etching identifying markers on the catalytic converters can assist law enforcement with efforts to identify victims, which is extremely important for a criminal prosecution. We need a victim if we hope to prosecute a suspect."

Bedoyan wrote that it is too soon to tell if the new program is effective because they will "need many more catalytic converters etched with identifying markers to know."

Bills at Minnesota state house addressing thefts stall

Legislators at the Minnesota Capitol have taken notice of this rise in thefts. Some have even fallen prey to thieves, as well.

Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, the chief author of one of two bills in the Minnesota Senate addressing catalytic converter thefts, recently had her's stolen.

Housley's bill, SF 206, and its Minnesota House companion bill HF 330, would make it so that a scrap dealer couldn't buy a catalytic converter without documentation about how it was obtained. The bill also states that if someone is prosecuted under the subdivision, it is for the defendant to prove that the person transferring or selling the catalytic converter acquired it legally and had the right to transfer or sell it.

Chief author of the House companion bill, Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, said the bill's intention is not to go after scrap dealers, who already follow stringent regulations, but to go after the criminals.

A second bill in the Senate, authored by Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville, seeks to make it illegal for anyone other than a licensed scrap dealer to purchase a used catalytic converter. A companion bill also exists in the House.

"It is unlawful for a scrap metal dealer to purchase a catalytic converter from any person other than a bona fide automobile repair shop, bona fide automobile recycling facility, or other person that can provide evidence of legitimate removal to the scrap metal dealer," SF 890 begins.

The bill would also make it a misdemeanor for a person other than an automobile repair shop or recycling facility to possess a catalytic converter that is not attached to a motor vehicle without proof it had been legitimately removed.

None of the catalytic converter bills received committee approval by the Legislature's first major deadline for this session, March 12.

"It's a problem all over the country. It's a problem that should have been foreseen," Marty said of catalytic converter thefts. "This is something far more precious than gold. We strap it on the bottom of our cars and we don't think it is going to be a problem."

Thefts cause headaches for vehicle owners

Taking a break from his night shift as a certified nursing assistant at Rochester's Charter House, Lucas Horvath went out for a short drive. Instead of a relaxing pause in work, he was greeted with an unwelcome surprise as he started his car.

"It sounded like my muffler was broken," Horvath said of that December night. "It smelled like really, really toxic gases, too."

Horvath's Toyota Prius was one of the more than a dozen vehicles hit that month by catalytic converter thieves. Of the 12 reports taken by Rochester police in December 2020, seven of them involved Toyota Priuses, including five at a Rochester repair shop. Catalytic converters are part of a vehicle's exhaust system that helps curb harmful emissions with the use of expensive noble and precious metals acting as the catalysts.

It wasn't just in December that thieves were hitting the streets, looking to make a quick buck off stolen catalytic converters. Between Aug. 11, 2020, and Feb. 26, 2021, the Rochester Police Department and the Olmsted County Sheriff's Office received a combined 107 reports of catalytic converter thefts or attempted thefts resulting in the loss or damage of approximately 150 vehicles, according to data obtained by the Post Bulletin. Of those approximately 150 thefts, 40 were from Toyota Priuses, 13 were from Honda Accords and 12 were from Ford Econoline trucks.

"It's all over the country, it isn't just regional. We see it through intelligence reports, crime alerts that come across that catalytic converter thefts are going everywhere," Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Scott Behrns said. "Bottom line is this, as quick as this happens and as quick as they disappear — somebody knows something out there. Somebody knows something and they need to step forward."

The National Insurance Crime Bureau reported on March 9 that thefts of catalytic converters have significantly increased across the country since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Minnesota is in the top five states for such thefts, trailing only California and Texas.

Park smart

Before Horvath's catalytic converter was stolen, he said he rarely heard about similar incidents. He started looking into it more after his own experience and realized what had happened to him was happening everywhere.

He said when he called his insurance agent, the agent said they had already received 10 other reports.

The repair cost about $1,500 but with insurance, Horvath paid about $500 out of pocket. He said friends chipped in as a Christmas present to help cover the cost. He also had a catalytic converter shield installed on the bottom of his car.

Since that December morning, Horvath said he's changed where he parks for work — making sure the area is covered by surveillance cameras or is well-lit.

Law enforcement has a few recommendations to prevent these thefts. Keep your car in a secure garage if possible, or alternatively in a well-lit area.

"It's those people that maybe could least afford to have their converter stolen that have to park outside and have their converter stolen," Rochester Police Capt. Casey Moilanen said.