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‘It’s out of control’ auto shop manager says of catalytic converter thefts

21March 2021

Tommy Jenkins is the Wonderful Muffler Man, a one-man shop along Rice Street in Roseville.

With over 25 years in business, Jenkins has gained a loyal following with classic car owners wanting his custom welding work. Over the past few months, though, he’s been busy installing catalytic converters for other customers who’ve had the car part swiped by thieves looking to cash in on the precious metals in them.

“I’ve seen a massive uptick in business,” Jenkins said. “I’ve had weeks where I’ve done five, six. But this has been creeping up over the last three years, and now these thieves are going crazy with it.”

Catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed recently in the Twin Cities metro area and across the U.S. as the price of platinum, palladium and rhodium increased, while the black market for the car parts — and the quick cash they bring thieves — grew. And that has set off a new series of headaches for theft victims: a nationwide shortage of replacement catalytic converters, which in turn has led to higher costs and longer repair wait times.

Catalytic converters remove pollutants before they travel out the tailpipe. Thieves slide under vehicles and use a battery-powered reciprocating saw or grinder to slice them off in a matter of minutes, then try to sell the parts to scrap yards or on the black market. Some savvy thieves have even learned how to mine the precious metals out of them to sell to dealers, law enforcement officials say.

Thieves are especially hot after the catalytic converters on the Mitsubishi Outlander sport utility vehicle and the hybrid Toyota Prius. The Prius has a converter that is used less frequently to process pollutants, meaning the precious metals inside them are less likely to corrode.

So it was no surprise to Will Creech, manager at Pace Tire & Service Center in West St. Paul, when he tried to get a Prius catalytic converter from Toyota recently and was told it was on backorder.

“It depends on the year, but it took almost a month to get a cat on that particular Prius,” Creech said. He added that customers become even more frustrated when they are told it is illegal to drive without the part and, if they do, it could cause engine issues and damage to other components.

Jenkins said Outlander catalytic converters straight from Mitsubishi are backordered so far out that he was recently asked by a local dealership to install an aftermarket one for a customer who did not want to wait for the manufacturer.

“That was a surprise,” Jenkins said. “I’ve never had a dealership turn to me for service. That should tell you something.”

An aftermarket part is less desirable for thieves because they contain fewer amounts of the precious metals than the manufacturer version. They also come at a cheaper cost.

“I can do a Mitsubishi Outlander for about $1,300 out the door, compared to over $3,500 from the dealer,” Jenkins said.

But even aftermarket prices are rising, both Jenkins and Creech said. Last month, a large nationwide auto-parts distributor notified shops through email about a 15 percent to 30 percent increase across the board for catalytic converters, Creech said.

“It’s horrible to have to tell people that they need to spend $2,000 or more,” he said. “And for them, it’s not making the car any better. It’s not like you’re getting new tires. It’s getting the car back to where it was the night before you parked it.”

ST. PAUL, OTHER CITIES SEE THEFT SPIKES

Tom “Ozzy” Jenkins shows the end of a catalytic converter at his Wonderful Muffler Man garage on Rice Street in Roseville. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Although the crime first popped up regularly in Minnesota 15 years ago, thieves are now sliding under vehicles with saws to cut off the parts in numbers never before seen in the state, law enforcement officials say.

The crime is particularly widespread in St. Paul and Minneapolis, where thieves take the opportunity to hit cars parked in streets or in driveways off dark alleys. Thieves are also becoming more brazen, swiping catalytic converters in broad daylight and from business parking lots and parking ramps.

The numbers are “alarming” in St. Paul, said Sgt. Natalie Davis, the department’s spokeswoman. The city has had nearly 500 thefts so far this year, double the number during the same period of 2020.

Officers and investigators are being proactive and vigilant, Davis said, “but unfortunately the thieves can strike quickly; it only takes a matter of minutes to saw a catalytic converter off a vehicle. That’s why we’re asking community members to take steps to protect themselves.”

Police suggest car owners take several steps to try to prevent the crime: park in garages or well-lit areas, consider installing car alarms, and look out for suspicious behavior and report it right away by calling 911, so officers have a better chance to interrupt theft.

“That gives us the best chance of holding the perpetrators responsible for their actions and putting an end to the crimes, which is what we all want,” Davis said.

The problem has been worse in Minneapolis, where catalytic converter thefts jumped from 207 in 2019 to 1,474 in 2020. This year, there have been nearly 400 thefts, compared with 290 during the same period of 2020. This year’s cases include reports of thieves using a tow truck to move a car and then steal the part.

Suburbs are not immune to the problem. Last fall in Eagan, for instance, reports hit record numbers each month. The city had 21 cases this past January alone.

To try to catch the thieves, the Eagan police investigations unit set up bait cars around the city. When a bait car’s catalytic converter was tampered with, covert cameras captured a suspect’s image and officers were immediately dispatched to the area. The effort led to a handful arrests.

“This is a nationwide problem,” said Jenkins, the Roseville shop owner. “I get customers that come in and say, ‘Well, I live in a nice neighborhood.’ It doesn’t matter, they’re hitting everywhere — the East Side to Highland Park to North Oaks. You name it.”

MN AMONG TOP STATES WITH INSURANCE CLAIMS

A three-year analysis by the National Insurance Crime Bureau shows that catalytic converter theft has increased dramatically nationally, especially over the past 18 months.

The study represents thefts reported to insurance companies, not a total of thefts nationwide as not everyone notifies their insurer, said Tully Lehman, the organization’s public affairs manager. “But it really points to a growing trend,” she said.

While it is a vastly underreported crime, she said, the data show a direct correlation between thefts and the increasing value of the metals that makeup catalytic converters. “This crime will likely continue to increase as the value of the precious metals continues to rise,” Lehman said.

In recent years, the values of the metals have increased significantly. As of December 2020, rhodium was valued at $14,500 per ounce, palladium at $2,336 per ounce and platinum going for $1,061 per ounce. Typically, recyclers will pay $50 to $250 for a catalytic converter.

According to NICB’s review, there were 108 catalytic converter thefts a month on average in 2018, 282 average monthly thefts in 2019 and 1,203 average thefts a month in 2020. During this time period, the top five states for catalytic converter thefts were California, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina and Illinois.

In 2020, thefts continued to climb. January saw the fewest number of thefts at 652, but it continued to climb throughout the year, with December having 2,347 thefts, according to NICB.

Comprehensive insurance covers catalytic converter theft. However, many drivers who carry the optional insurance choose not to file a claim if the cost of replacement is below or maybe even a few hundred dollars more than the deductible, Lehman said.

While filing a catalytic converter theft with an insurance company can affect a driver’s rate, Lehman said, “the likely impact would be only a minor factor” when considering the cost of a policy.

LEGISLATION AIMS TO ADDRESS PROBLEM

Tom “Ozzy” Jenkins welds a replacement catalytic converter to a customer’s 2018 Mitsubishi Outlander. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, got firsthand knowledge of the problem in September.

After paying for new brakes for her truck, which was wrapped in vinyl election campaign decals at the time, she started it up. “It sounded like a race car,” she said. “It was so unbelievably loud.”

A thief had cut the catalytic converter off the truck while it had been parked overnight outside a Stillwater auto shop. A Facebook post prompted 100 replies of sympathy and similar stories from theft victims.

Now, Housley is among state legislators who have proposed bills that would aim to curtail the crime.

In January, Housley introduced legislation that would make it a crime to have a catalytic converter and not proof of ownership. She acknowledged that proving ownership could be tricky because the parts do not have vehicle identification numbers or markings that can be used to tie them with specific makes and models.

Law enforcement and industry professionals suggest people etch an identification into their catalytic converters, though caution must be taken to not damage it, or use a marking kit.

Housley said she hopes the legislation, which also calls for steeper penalties for multiple offenses, toughens the 2013 state law that forces licensed scrap recyclers to keep detailed transaction records. Those same rules would apply to anyone buying the part, not just a scrap recycler.

Housley said the law would give law enforcement a tool to make an arrest. As is it now, without catching a thief in the act, police have a hard time making an arrest. When officers do come across a vehicle with a trunk full of catalytic converters, it’s difficult tying the parts back to the cars they were taken from and they often end up having to let suspects go.

“We need to give law enforcement a tool to say, ‘Let’s take them in.’ It doesn’t hurt to try and see what happens,” she said of the proposed legislation. “Because obviously, what we passed in 2013 didn’t work.”

In February, Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, also introduced a bill. Under Marty’s bill, only licensed scrap dealers would be permitted to buy used catalytic converters. Those dealers could only purchase converters from auto-repair or recycling businesses or individuals who provide proof that they own the parts. Individuals would be barred from possessing used converters not attached to a car.

Creech, manager of the West St. Paul auto-repair shop, said action needs to be taken to fix the problem.

“It’s something we all want to see resolved,” he said. “Obviously, we’re a repair shop so we’re making money — it’s jobs that we normally wouldn’t have — but it’s not something we want to do. We don’t want to hear from a customer that’s been a good customer for 20 years to call you in tears one morning because their exhaust is loud and now they have a $2,000 out-of-pocket bill — all for somebody to make $75 or $100 on a stolen part. It’s out of control.”

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