Oklahomans share experiences with catalytic converter theft
The National Insurance Crime Bureau found catalytic converters are stolen at an “alarming” rate. Between 2019 and 2020, converter thefts quadrupled nationally. The thieves are after converters for their precious metals.
Aaron Bolerjack knew the sound when he heard it.
The Oklahoma City pastor had been the victim of catalytic converter theft before. So when that unnatural roar came from his engine, he knew immediately what had happened.
“You put the key in the ignition, you turn over the engine like normal and instead of driving, you know a sedan or a midsize SUV or whatever, it sounds like you're driving a monster truck,” Bolerjack said.
Bolerjack has had the catalytic converters stolen off three of his church’s vehicles, plus an SUV parked in his own driveway.
“We live in a suburb of Northwest Oklahoma City. So not anywhere that is poorly lit or out of the way or a particularly dangerous area,” Bolerjack said.
This isn’t an issue just for him.
A roofing company who had a fleet of cars hit, a college student in class, a truck in the shop for a different maintenance issue — these are just a few stories KOSU received about catalytic converter theft around Oklahoma as thefts rise across the country.
Why do people target catalytic converters?
Catalytic converters were put on cars with regularity beginning in the mid-1970s to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's stricter regulation of exhaust emissions.
The part “converts” toxic gasses and pollutants in a car’s exhaust, so they become less toxic by “catalyzing a redox reaction.”
Although catalytic converters are commonly used on cars, they are also found in other machinery, like forklifts, trucks, buses, motorcycles and more.
They are stolen more often because the converters are made up of precious metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, which are valuable to most metal dealers. Recyclers typically pay $50 to $250 per catalytic converter.
Are catalytic converters being stolen more now?
Catalytic converters are stolen at an “alarming” rate, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Nationally, the NICB found in 2018 - 1,298 converters were reported stolen. In 2019, that number jumped to 3,389. And in 2020, the reported converter thefts quadrupled to 14,433. The NICB found December 2020 saw roughly 16 percent of those thefts in one month, with 2,347.
In Oklahoma City, MSgt. Gary Knight with the Oklahoma City Police Department told KOSU via email that anecdotally he knows that there has been an increase in catalytic converter thefts, because of what he’s seen in reports. But it's unclear exactly how many catalytic converters have been stolen because OCPD doesn’t track that specifically, Knight wrote in an email.
Knight told KOSU that the punishment currently depends on when a stolen catalytic converter is discovered. If a person is caught in the act of trying to steal it off a vehicle, it’s petit larceny — a misdemeanor. If a person is later found with it, it would be classified as possession of stolen property, which is a felony.
Catalytic converter theft can happen anywhere
When it happened to Len Gardner, he had his truck at his mechanic, where several other cars were targeted.
“My mechanic was aware he had been hit, and he hadn't checked my truck,” Gardner said. “We looked under there, and you could see it was gone.”
Gardner said he luckily had insurance to cover most of the cost. But, Gardner said he is prepared if it were to happen again.
“I do have an alarm on the truck, so if somebody tried it again, it would rock it enough that it would set the alarm off.”
For the consumer, these kinds of repairs, which often depends on what is damaged in addition to the catalytic converter being taken, can often result in thousands of dollars of repairs.
One person told KOSU on record that his truck, which had insurance, cost over $8,500 for the repair. He said he paid a $1,000 deductible, but had to wait over three months for it to be repaired due to supply chain issues.
‘We watched them... walk around like they owned the place.’
Brad Gilliland works for a metal roofing company. He said they had several vehicles, mostly diesel engines, that were hit after the Thanksgiving weekend. Gilliland said someone again stole several converters earlier this year. He said the damage to the total vehicles in their company’s yard cost somewhere around $20,000.
“Luckily for us, these were all our extra trucks, so it didn't hurt us too bad other than just our time of having to fix them and get them back out,” Gilliland said. “And then try to keep them where we can keep an eye on them, where it wouldn't happen again.”
He said after the incident, they put vehicles where they can monitor them on cameras, which has led to seeing people in the yard.
“I know that they did catch three of them here, they caught him in the yard,” Gilliland said. “We watched them at one time on the cameras walk around like they owned the place, you know.”
Legislation to deal with catalytic converter theft
States like Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Kansas have already implemented new laws targeting these particular thefts. This year, Oklahoma lawmakers also considered a measure to deter the crime. But that bill appears dead.
House Bill 3005, authored by Rep. Lonnie Sims, R-Jenks, would reduce theft of the automobile part by making the crime a felony.
Sims works as a risk control consultant in addition to being a lawmaker. In that role, he said he’s recently noticed a trend of stolen catalytic converters in Missouri.
“What I tried to do with this legislation is really put a law together that is all encompassing that addresses the theft,” Rep Sims said. “You know, put some deterrents within it, but then it also seeks to ensure that our purchasers of these parts — our scrap metal dealers — are taking the proper steps to ensure that these are parts owned by the individuals who are selling them.”
The bill was passed in the House on March 22, but it did not receive a Public Safety Committee hearing in the Senate by a deadline last week.
What are people doing to protect themselves?
One reason it can be difficult to prevent this kind of crime is because someone can discreetly slide under the car, cut off the catalytic converter and flee in a matter of minutes.
But there are some preventative measures that the NICB has recommended parking your car in an enclosed space, like a garage, having your vehicle in a well lit area, or installing preventive inserts that make the converter harder to saw off.
The NICB says if possible, parking in a garage or in a secured parking area, installing a bright motion detector light and installing an anti-theft device are some additional ways to dissuade thieves.
Kateleigh Mills produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This story was edited by Robby Korth.