Heavy Metal: Thieves Getting Rich on Stolen Cats

March 31, 2008
A grumbling train-like roar: that’s how Jose Fernandez described the sound his car made the first time he turned it on after his catalytic converter was stolen. He wanted to sell his 1996 4Runner, but without that device connected to a car's exhaust system, that's going to be tough, the New York Times reports this week. That is, unless he wants to pay nearly $1,000 to replace his stolen piece of equipment.

Catalytic converters keep car exhaust cleaner -- and to do that, they enlist a virtual who's who of the periodic table to do their job. They contain platinum, palladium, and rhodium, which all help to speed up chemical reactions and clean emissions. Platinum is on the market for around $2,300 an ounce now, and a thief who steals a catalytic converter can sell it to a chop shop for a few hundred dollars very easily.

Because larger SUVs require larger catalytic converters, they are the ones most heavily targeted. The larger the catalytic converter, the more platinum the thief will obtain. This is what left 140 children stuck at their daycare center in Memphis: thieves stole the catalytic converters out of the daycare center's vans while they were parked right in the lot.

It takes a matter of minutes to steal the catalytic converter out of a car, and it goes unnoticed because the act does not involve breaking into the car. Car alarms and parking in well-lit areas is a hardly a defense. The Times heard that from Jim Lyon, who lives across from a police department and can see his Jeep from his window. Someone still managed to take his catalytic converter and make a clean getaway.

Although states are passing legislation to make them more difficult to resell converters, auto theft expert Chris McGoey told the Times that the problem won't be solved until the hardware is worthless.

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