This article is from the Catalytic Converter Theft: Prevention and Enforcement Efforts session during ISRI2021. If you would like to watch this session in its entirety, you can still register for ISRI2021 here. This session, along with others, are available to attendees on demand.
As the value of precious metals increase, catalytic converter theft across the country and internationally is becoming a dire problem. During the session Catalytic Converter Theft: Prevention and Enforcement Efforts at ISRI2021, Steve Levetan, executive vice president of Pull-A-Part, Brady Mills, ISRI’s director of law enforcement outreach, and Carleton (Butch) Bryant, special counsel for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee, discussed the work to prevent catalytic converter theft and how recyclers and law enforcement can work together on this problem.
The Perfect Storm
Several factors contribute to the rise of these thefts. Platinum, palladium, and rhodium prices, the elements found in catalytic converters, are at all-time highs. Due to the pandemic, law enforcement priorities may have shifted from investigating these types of thefts. The converters aren’t readily identifiable, putting recyclers and law enforcement at a disadvantage. Without identification, recyclers are less able to determine if they’re purchasing a stolen catalytic converter, and law enforcement can’t easily track down the stolen property.
Unfortunately, stealing a catalytic converter is a relatively quick and easy operation. Watching a video of a catalytic converter stolen in 90 seconds, “you almost think you’re watching a NASCAR pit crew,” Levetan says. Though thieves will steal from any vehicle, they gravitate to large fleet vehicles, Butch explains. Since fleet vehicles are parked together in the same area of a lot, a thief at night can quickly crawl from one to the next. They’re typically parked in locked areas that aren’t covered with cameras, he adds. Thieves value the larger catalytic converters from fleet vehicles because they hold more of the highly-priced precious metals. All these issues converge to create the perfect storm.
Though media often labels recyclers as a source of the problem for unknowingly purchasing stolen products, they’re actually victims, Levetan notes. To combat the rising problem, ISRI’s Materials Theft Subcommittee formed a Catalytic Converter Working Group last October, with Levetan at the helm. The group aims to help recyclers identify and avoid buying stolen catalytic converters by making their sale more traceable and making the converters more identifiable.
The working group reached out to law enforcement and other stakeholders around the country, asking them to share issues and how ISRI could help them change the laws or conduct additional training to use the existing laws. ISRI’s outreach efforts led to a joint working group with the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) and the National Insurance Crime Bureau to tackle the problem. On March 18, ISRI and IAATI published a press release with tips to vehicle owners on how to fight catalytic converter thefts.
The purchase and sale of catalytic converters is generally addressed by metal theft laws in all 50 states. However those laws are not always clear and many buyers try to avoid the law by claiming they are buying “cores,” not scrap. Over 30 bills in more than 20 states have been introduced this year on catalytic converter theft, and as the problem grows so do legislative efforts. However legislation, on its own, is not always the most effective avenue to enact change.
ISRI’s working group created a list of concepts and elements for each state to examine how it could improve its laws on this issue. Breaking down the legislative considerations, the working group examined the major points such as who can buy a catalytic converter, who can possess a converter, and who can sell the converters. Putting limits on who can possess and sell converters may help, Levetan notes. For example, if officers making a traffic stop notice 10 catalytic converters in the individual’s truck, they have probably or reasonable cause of the law to search or seize the vehicle.
Marking Catalytic Converters
With or without legislation there are other ways to tackle the problem, Levetan says. Panelists recommend marking catalytic converters to make them identifiable. To mark the converters, engrave or attach a label with a unique identifying number like the VIN (vehicle identification number), and apply a bright, high-temperature spray paint, which deters the would-be thief from removing the converter.
There are several benefits to marking catalytic converters. It’s a solution that can be immediately implemented at low or no cost. It simultaneously identifies the converters and serves as a deterrent to thieves. From a public relations standpoint, it shows recyclers want to work together with law enforcement and other community partners to help make a difference in this area.
Law Enforcement’s Role
Butch provides several recommendations for law enforcement dealing with catalytic converter thefts. Law enforcement should be aware of their state’s scrap metal laws and use them. He recommends law enforcement to remember the seizure laws. For example, in Tennessee, the vehicles used to further the theft can be seized and forfeited. Law enforcement should check the laws and regulations, and review the books and records regularly. Butch also advises law enforcement to establish relationships with local recyclers. If recyclers are aware of someone trying to sell stolen catalytic converters they can report it to law enforcement.
The panelists discussed the value of recyclers and law enforcement tackling the problem together. Butch notes examples where local recyclers helped his team by reporting suspicious activity. At the request of the Georgia sheriff’s association and chiefs of police, ISRI’s working group created a document explaining the state laws on this issue in simple terms, along with photos of converters.
ISRI is and continues working to prevent catalytic converter thefts. The association will help eliminate illegal purchasers of catalytic converters either through existing laws or changes in legislation, working on proactive legislation, where it comes up, and working with law enforcement. This is a long-term issue—one law or policy won’t put an end to the thefts—but ISRI is committed to collaborating with all its partners and making a difference.
Photo caption: During the session Catalytic Converter Theft: Prevention and Enforcement Efforts at ISRI2021, Steve Levetan, executive vice president of Pull-A-Part, LLC (left), Brady Mills, ISRI’s director of law enforcement outreach (right), and Carleton (Butch) Bryant, special counsel for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee (middle), discuss the current work to prevent catalytic converter theft.