URBANA – Auto shop owners and law enforcement in Champaign-Urbana are seeing an increase in vehicle catalytic converter thefts.
Catalytic converters make toxic exhaust fumes less harmful for the environment and are located on the underside of vehicles.
They also contain precious metals like rhodium, platinum and palladium that can sell for upwards of $19,000 per ounce, which is driving the increase in thefts, according to a Tully Lehman, a spokesperson for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
“They’re sliding under with saws and cutting them on both ends and pulling them right out,” Julie Morris, owner of KCM Auto Care in Urbana, says.
Morris says she’s noticed a significant increase in converter thefts in the past few months. One of her employees had theirs cut off in a Wal-Mart parking lot and six cars in one of her shop’s parking lots were hit as well.
Auto experts say replacing these converters can range from $800 to $2,500.
It isn’t just cars either. Morris runs a truck rental business and says someone cut off the converters of all the large trucks in the parking lot.
At the University of Illinois, there have been eleven converters stolen this year, according to University Police spokesperson Patrick Wade. Most have occurred overnight in University parking lots to school-owned vehicles and the total damage to all these vehicles is estimated to be about $25,300.
Wade says he doesn’t recall any catalytic converter thefts occurring last year.
“It’s kind of spotty, but this happens in clusters every few years,” he says. “Every once in a while, the market price of those metals will spike, and that’s when we start seeing the thefts.”
The National Insurance Crime Bureau released a study in March which found an exponential increase in catalytic converter thefts since the start of the pandemic.
Illinois is one of the top five states for catalytic converter thefts, according to the study, but this is also a national problem.
Lehman, the spokesperson for the bureau, says by looking at insurance claims from the past year, there is a “strong correlation between increase in thefts and the increase in value of the metals contained.”
Lehman says the highs of these metals for this year, according to Kitco, were $27,000 per ounce of rhodium from March 19 to 22; palladium at $2,885 per ounce on May 4; and platinum at $1,266 per ounce on February 19.
Travis Loflin, who works at TMS Auto Repair in Champaign, says he suspects that these metals are being sold on the black market.
“Truth be told, these people are being really dumb about it because you just can’t steal one and take it to a scrapyard and sell it. You have to sell it to a licensed dealer,” he says. “There must be someone on the black market because I don’t know where the heck they’re selling them.”
Loflin says one of the best ways to help with the increased thefts is to engrave the vehicle identification number, or VIN, into the converter. This way, licensed buyers can tell the converter was stolen and police can use the VIN to track down sellers.
When it comes to prevention, Morris says “there’s not much you can do unless your car is parked in a garage.”
Loflin says people can buy shields for catalytic converters, like those that are specially made for Toyota Priuses, but they may only delay the inevitable.
“We’ve entertained this idea at work, trying to come up with stuff,” he says. “But it will only delay it from happening. They can still get to it.”
Editor’s note: This story originally said that the metals in catalytic converters were selling for up to $19,000 per pound. The correct figure is $19,000 per ounce. We regret the error.
Vivian La is a student journalist for Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter @vivian_la_.