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Hot parts

October 5, 2011

It’s the hottest item on a car thief’s wish list.

Catalytic converters, parts in the exhaust system used to reduce emissions, have become a prominent target for thieves because of the high price tag some carry. The car parts contain elements like platinum and rhodium, precious metals that often sell for thousands of dollars per ounce. As prices for those metals continue to skyrocket, authorities say larcenies will remain prominent as well.

From May 11-17 this year, there were more than eight converter larcenies reported to the sheriff’s office alone. Police departments in Newton, Conover and Claremont say converter thefts are something they deal with on a regular basis, too.

Smaller towns like Maiden also say they also converter larcenies from time to time, said Maiden Police Lt. Jamey Fletcher.

“Most of them happen in parking lots where being around a vehicle isn’t unusual,” Fletcher said. “It makes it hard to prevent against.”

The most recent converter crime occurred on Monday outside the sheriff’s office in Newton.

Two thieves cut a converter from a 1977 Chevrolet Silverado parked just outside Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid’s office in broad daylight. They were getting ready to flee the scene when one of Reid’s deputies, Sgt. Beebe, spotted the men and approached their car.

When Beebe got to the window, he saw a cut catalytic converter lying on the floorboard. He questioned the two men, who blamed each other for the crime, and the sheriff’s office charged them with larceny of motor parts.

Reid said converter larcenies are down in the county from last year, but said they are still a regular issue.

“Usually, it’s an easy targeted spot on someone’s vehicle,” Reid said. “Normally, it’s the wee hours of the morning when people do it, and there’s a less risk of people getting caught. With the right tools, they can be under a truck and out in 30 seconds.”

To cut a converter off, thieves have to get underneath a vehicle and use some type of saw to remove the part. While portable power tools seem to be a common method of removing converters, Fletcher said he’s seen hacksaws and bolt cutters used in the past.

For this reason, Reid said thieves often target trucks and SUVs that sit higher off the ground.

The converter market

The market for used, or removed, catalytic converters may be shrinking. More and more chop shops and metal recycling facilities are becoming increasingly aware of the part’s association with crime and aren’t buying it for that reason.

But the larcenies keep happening, and authorities and mechanics agree that some auto salvages and recycling companies must still be buying converters.
On Wednesday, The O-N-E called more than 10 businesses that buy used car parts and metals; three said they bought converters.

An employee of A-1 Recycling, located off U.S. 70 in Connellys Springs, said the business buys catalytic converters but did not specify the price range. The representative did not respond to further questioning.

McKinney’s Metals, also in Connellys Springs, buys converters, but the business takes a long list of precautionary measures before making the purchase, said owner Carroll McKinney.

“We do require that you have a valid driver’s license and picture identification,” McKinney said. “We record every tag number that comes on the premises as well, and we also fingerprint.”

McKinney said he buys the parts anywhere from $5 to $150.

“I get all that information with anything I buy to protect myself and to cut down on people selling the stolen goods,” he said, adding that he works very closely with the sheriff’s office in Burke County. “I can’t stand a thief. If someone brings something in that is questionable at all, I call the sheriff’s office.”

Buyers for converters are shrinking, though, and most businesses don’t accept the parts because of the potential for legal problems.

A Plus Auto Salvage in Maiden stopped buying them because of the potential of handling stolen items. In fact, several converters were stolen from A Plus’s salvage yard last week, said A Plus Manager Hank Rollins.

“The thieves aren’t going to bring them here because the people that own A Plus are honest,” Rollins said. “Somebody, honestly, is buying them around here because the thieves are still stealing them. They are expensive and worth a lot of money.”

Preventing the crime

Replacing a stolen converter can be expensive.

Depending on the damage to your vehicle or type of car, the replacement job can cost up to $1,500 to $2,000, according to estimates from area mechanics.

And since most converter thieves strike at night and others are brazen enough to steal from high traffic and profile parking lots, authorities say preventing the thefts can be challenging.

One seemingly thief-proof method would be investing in a device such as a CatClamp. The device, endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice, places heavy duty aircraft wire around the converter and makes it impossible for a quick, effortless larceny of the car part.

Devices like the CatClamp cost about $150.

Reid recommends parking in a well-lit area and utilizing garage space when available. He said if there are multiple cars at a residence, park the two closely together so accessing the converters is more difficult.

Other authorities and insurance companies also recommend these tips to avoid being the victim of a converter larceny:

At shopping centers and other similar parking lots, park close the entrance of the building, or near the access road where there’s a lot of traffic.

If you own or work at a business or factory, park within a fenced area that’s busy during the day and secured at night.

Engrave your license plate number on the converter to make it traceable. This can help with local police investigations.

Purchase a vehicle security system, and make sure its set to triggered with just the slightest motion.

Visit a local muffler shop and have the converter secured to the vehicle’s frame with a couple of pieces of hardened steel welded to the frame.

Check out the different types of catalytic converter theft deterrent systems at your local auto parts store or on the Internet.

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