It’s a crime as simple as it is brazen. In the dead of night at dealerships, and lunch time in crowded parking lots, thieves are sawing off parts of vehicle exhaust systems because of the value of precious metals inside.
HOUSTON (CN) — David Castillo, 46, of Houston, usually parks his 2006 Honda CRV at his apartment complex.
But he parked it on the street one night in April because his daughter’s friend stayed over.
“So she parked in our spot,” he said.
The next day, after he got off work, he turned the key in the ignition and instantly knew something was wrong.
“When I started it ‘waaaaah.’ It was loud. I said, ‘Oh shit.’ I turned it off, looked under the hood, and I looked under the car and I saw they had cut it off,” he said.
Catalytic converters reduce emissions — nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon. While vehicles can still run, loudly, without them, they will not pass emissions tests required in some jurisdictions before owners can renew their registrations.
Thefts of catalytic converters are skyrocketing across the United States because they contain three valuable precious metals: rhodium (worth $23,000 per ounce), palladium ($2,861) and platinum ($1,190).
Embedded in honeycomb wafers in the interior of the devices, the metals trap some pollutants in exhaust and keep them from escaping out tailpipes.
Since the mid-1970s, federal regulations have mandated every new car built for the U.S. market must have a catalytic converter.
There is now a huge demand for the metals because China recently implemented stricter vehicle emission rules.
Couple this with Covid-19-related shutdowns of rhodium mines in South Africa, where most of the metal is produced, 80% of which is used by the auto industry, and this explains why the per-ounce price is almost 10 times the $2,840 it was going for in May 2019.
Sergeant Tracy Hicks of the Houston Police auto theft division said the vehicles most targeted by catalytic converter thieves are Toyota Tundras and Priuses, Tundras more so because they can get under them without having to jack them up.
And Tundras have four “cats” — as he calls them — that can be easily hacked off, while Priuses have three.
The converters from both Tundras and Priuses can be sold to metal recyclers for over $1,000, Hicks said, while the average price they go for if they are from other vehicles is $150 to $250.
With rows and rows of shiny new Tundras on their lots, Toyota dealers in Texas, also known as “pickup country,” are being hit hard, sometimes before the pickups even make it to the lot.
“We literally had thieves steal converters off of new Toyotas that were still on an inbound train coming into our vehicle processing center in Houston,” Laird Doran, senior counsel for Gulf States Toyota, which supplies parts to all Toyota dealerships in Texas, told the state Senate Natural Resources Committee in a May 20 hearing.
In Baytown, east of Houston, thieves laid in wait as they watched new Toyotas being unloaded off a trailer at a dealership.
“After the vehicles were parked, they came out of the bushes and took the catalytic converters off them. It’s that crazy,” Doran said.
Hicks said the lucrative heists have drawn in a dangerous new criminal element in Houston. He said HPD’s auto theft division has “dealt with the same criminals and their friends and their relatives for years,” a set number of crooks who steal cars, break into them and jack tailgates, wheels and tires.
They know not to carry weapons, Hicks said.
“Because they know in Harris County it’s a property crime and they’re not going to get any jail time, they’re only going to get a PR [personal recognizance] bond if they don’t have a weapon. And they all know this because they’re all convicted felons.”
But the 15-year HPD veteran said the easy money of selling stolen catalytic converters has caught the attention of drug dealers, who can make in a day what they made in a week selling crack for a $10 profit per rock.
“Well, here’s the problem: These guys don’t know the rules about property crimes, and we’ve had more and more of these people with weapons,” he said.
A month ago, Hicks continued, the manager of a southeast Houston apartment complex told a resident there was somebody under his car.
The car owner ran out with a pipe and hit the thief’s legs with it.
“And his partner who was in the getaway car got out and I mean 6 feet away from him, shot at him and just barely missed, nicked his ear,” Hicks said in an interview.
There was an average of 108 monthly thefts of catalytic converters in the U.S. in 2018, 282 in 2019 and 1,203 per last year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
“During this time-period, the top five states for catalytic converter thefts were California, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina and Illinois,” it said.
With three days left in the Texas Legislature’s regular session, lawmakers are close to passing House Bill 4110 that will require people trying to 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 will also increase the penalty for knowingly selling or buying a stolen catalytic converter; and implement a five-day holding period from the day the recycler buys them before they can sell or dispose of them.
Texas state Senator Kal Seliger sees the bill as overregulation.
In a May 20 legislative committee hearing, the Amarillo Republican questioned if it would be better to require car manufacturers to put a unique number on the precious metal-containing parts of catalytic converters, so scrap buyers could enter them into a database and be notified if they were stolen.
“They could track a catalytic converter the way law enforcement tracks weapons that have serial numbers on them,” he said.
Testifying in favor of the bill, Irving Assistant Police Chief Brian Redburn said such a tracking system should be addressed by Congress. “Just so there’s uniformity,” he said.
“But my problem with suggesting that in lieu of this bill,” Redburn added, “is what do we do with the tens of millions of cars that are already on the road? And meanwhile Texas citizens are suffering losses daily because of this and their catalytic converters aren’t marked. So I would say we need to do both.”
If passed, the bill would take effect Sept. 1.
As the law currently stands, Hicks said, “there’s nothing even slightly illegal about” a person putting an ad online, say Facebook, that they buy catalytic converters, driving around Houston paying cash for them and selling them to metal recyclers.
The only requirements, Hicks said, are that they have ID so the recycler can photocopy it, and to have a bank account because the recycler can only them pay them via direct deposit or check, not cash.
“Now here’s the problem: the guy on Facebook is not actually looking for the guy who has one,” Hicks said. “He’s looking for the guy who says, ‘Hey every Friday meet me here and I’ll have 10 at least for you.’”
This is how the thieves stay off law enforcement’s radar, the sergeant explained.
“They’re using a legitimate business guy who’s going out and buying cats and he says, ‘Well I don’t know where he gets them. I’m not a thief. You can’t arrest me.’ And we can’t. He’s just out buying cats,” Hicks said.
Some of these buyers are making $10,000 a week in Houston. Hicks said HPD officers sometimes ask metal recyclers for a printout of everybody they bought catalytic converters from.
“And it’s like ‘Oh this guy made $1,500, this guy made $10,000, this guy made $6,000, this guy made $3,000.’ There’s a bunch of them,” he said.
With all these sales, who are the recyclers selling them to?
They don’t extract the precious metal themselves, but sell the converters whole for a modest markup, industry experts say.
Responding to testimony about a man arrested after he sold 77 catalytic converters to a recycler in North Texas, Texas state Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican from Waco, asked in a committee hearing where the precious metal trail leads.
“Let’s say the 77 catalytic converters equaled an ounce of rhodium … who is out there buying raw rhodium?” he said.
“We may need a more precision weapons system … to get to that individual, or that industry that is receiving 77,” Birdwell said of the proposed legislation.
But that buyer may be on the other side of the world.
To reclaim the precious metals inside, Sergeant Hicks said, the outside of the converters are peeled off and their interior wafers are crushed and turned back into powder. The metals are extracted through a chemical process.
“There’s no factory in Houston,” Hicks said. But he said he learned from a California law enforcement officer that for one crook the road to a factory capable of doing it ran through Houston.
According to Hicks, police tracking a serial catalytic converter thief near Sacramento could not figure out where he was getting rid of them because he never took them to recyclers.
The investigation led them to a warehouse where the man had a shipping container nearly filled up with the devices, and they learned he had already sent off one containerful.
“It shipped over here to Houston, went on a ship and he sold it directly to China,” Hicks said, estimating the man had made six figures from the deal.
Hicks does public outreach videos for HPD where he advises people to “harden” their catalytic converters: etch their license plate or the VIN number on them, spray them with a bright engine paint, wrap steel cages around them, or guard them with a piece of sheet metal one can buy for their car that bolts onto the undercarriage.
In December, Hicks said, the city of Houston had the converters stolen from its fleet of 100 Priuses.
“All the city’s catalytic converters are painted orange now, and they have not had one disappear since,” he said.
Because saw-wielding thieves in a hurry to remove the parts sometimes cut indiscriminately, repairs can be very expensive.
A Toyota Tundra owner in North Texas had to pay $17,000 to repair the vehicle after crooks cut the fuel line while removing its four catalytic converters, according to Doran, the Gulf States Toyota attorney.
Doran said because of the rash of thefts, Toyota owners and dealerships are having to wait three or four months to get converters replaced.
Hicks said because saw blades cutting into pipes make a lot of noise, this is a crime crooks prefer to do at midday, with their partners serving lookout.
“It’s broad daylight. And lunch time is their huge time,” Hicks said. “Because that’s when it’s the noisiest outside. They need that street noise. And the closer to the main freeway it is the better.”
“And the thing is, the guy is lying under the car so you could drive right by him and not even see him,” he added.