Driven to Steal: Catalytic converter theft on the rise

Updated: Apr. 29, 2021 at 5:06 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - It’s a car part so valuable that it’s driving some people to steal.

As the price of precious metals has soared, area law enforcement say they’ve seen more reported thefts of the car part and mechanic shops say they’ve been busier than usual to replace them. A catalytic converter is a car part you wouldn’t normally think about until it’s missing.

The noise the car makes without one is unmistakably loud. Catalytic converters not only muffle sound, but the car part is designed to filter pollutants and clean emissions.

A rise in thefts of the car part has meant busier days for Barry’s Muffler and Brake shop off Ferguson Avenue in Savannah.

“People just going and cutting them off from cars right in the driveway and then they’re trying to sell them.”

He’s replaced close to 20 in the last two months far more than what he’s seen in over a decade. One customer told him her’s was stolen while she ran a quick errand.

“It was crazy,” said Barry Wardlaw, owner of Barry’s Muffler and Brake. “You think you’re going in and going shopping to buy some groceries or whatever and come out and someone has not stolen your car, your purse, but stolen your catalytic converter off the car, which right now is more valuable than anything.”

The value is because of the rare metals inside of the part – one of them is rhodium. Since January, the commodities trading price of rhodium has nearly doubled to around $28,000 an ounce.

The scrap value translates to a few hundred dollars for a catalytic converter, which is why police say the number of reported thefts has gone up from last year.

Since the beginning of the year, Savannah Police have received 15 reported thefts of catalytic converters. It’s triple the number of thefts reported in all of last year.

Chatham County also has seen uptick in reported cases.

“We’re at a certain number and that number can continue to rise because criminals are out there and if they want that product and that money they are going to do what they can to get it,” said Cpl. Barry Lewis, Savannah Police Central Precinct.

It’s not just catalytic converters - scrap metal related thefts are on the rise, too.

Construction sites, abandoned or empty homes around Chatham County have been targeted recently, said Chatham County Police Chief Jeff Hadley.

Those include a series of thefts reported at a Georgia Power substation on Hutchison Island over the past several months, which amounted to thousands of dollars in copper wiring stolen.

“There is certainly more going on than we are aware of, and we certainly want people to report it,” Hadley said.”So we don’t know what we don’t know.”

The rise in the price of metal has led to changes in recent years for scrap yards in Georgia.

Southern Metals Recycling off Tremont Road no longer buys certain items from the general public.

“The state has instituted guidelines that we are to follow to make sure that anyone bringing in catalytic converters are strictly dealers or those who are authorized to remove those,” said Travis Cowart Jr. with Southern Metals Recycling. “It’s a lot easier for us because we have some accountability as to where the materials are coming from who is giving us the material and we don’t have to worry about buying stolen property.”

So, what can you do to protect your property?

Both Savannah and Chatham County Police advise not to leave your cars parked for a long period of time without some kind of extra layer of security, such as working video camera surveillance system. Another option.

“The other thing is to get your mechanic to inscribe your vin number on the outer shell of the actual catalytic converter so if it does show up at a shop - maybe we can trace it back,” Cpl. Lewis said

For thieves who know what they are doing, it can take only a few minutes or less to steal a catalytic converter, but it’s the loud sound of metal being sawed that will get your attention.

Tips from law enforcement and mechanics if your catalytic converter is stolen:

  • File a police report.
  • Have the car towed to a mechanic shop because driving without a catalytic converter could damage the vehicle.
  • File an insurance claim - usually the replacement cost is covered.

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