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.