Cars: An Exhausting New Crime

It's not every day cops catch a prowler breaking into a Highway Patrol impound lot. But that's allegedly what happened on Dec. 1 outside Memphis, Tenn., when Shelby County Sheriff's deputies "heard a saw running under a blue Buick station wagon" and discovered a man attempting to cut away the car's catalytic converter. Next to him was another converter "that had been completely cut out" of a nearby Toyota Tacoma, according to a police report. The man wielding the yellow power saw was allegedly Allen Simpson, 43, a former alderman from nearby Arlington, and co-owner of a local auto-salvage company. He's pleaded not guilty to trespass, vandalism and theft charges, but faces a preliminary hearing later this month. (Simpson and his lawyer declined NEWSWEEK's request for comment.)

The alleged theft surprised the Tennessee cops, but it shouldn't have. Though national figures don't exist, law-enforcement officials from Maine to Southern California report a surge in the past few years of stolen catalytic converters, sometimes called "cats" or "cat cons," a key antipollution device equipped on every car and truck. In as little as a minute, thieves cruising parking lots and suburban streets can slip under a vehicle, remove the converter and disappear. Each device contains a few grams of precious platinum and related metals, and thieves can turn them in at salvage yards for between $25 and $200. That's nothing compared to the owner's replacement bill which can cost up to $2,000 says John Nielsen, director of AAA's Auto Repair Network.

What's driving these "cat" burglaries? Skyrocketing commodity metals prices, which have propelled the cost of platinum from $500 per ounce in 2000 to more than $1,500 today. Catalytic converters utilize platinum, a "noble metal," to transform the carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide in vehicle exhaust into less harmful nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water. The devices have been mandatory on U.S. cars and trucks since 1975, and about 60 percent of the world's platinum supply goes into them, according to Patrick Magilligan of A-1 Specialized Services & Supplies, the nation's largest platinum recycler.

Worldwide demand for platinum is growing at 14 percent a year, says Magilligan, in part because of rising pollution restrictions on vehicles overseas. Supplies, however, are relatively flat, largely due to refining and mining slowdowns in South Africa, the world's leading producer of platinum. The price hikes are prompting increased legitimate recycling of used converters, with some selling on eBay for as much as $100.

Thieves are brazenly filling the gap between supply and demand. Sheriff's investigators in Genesee County, Mich., broke up three rings since last March, according to Lt. Chris Swanson, head of the auto theft unit. (A fourth ring appears to be working now.) The crews work in pairs, one driving and the other hopping out to saw off the converters. (Some even carry battery rechargers, to keep the saws freshly powered.) Swanson says a surveillance team followed a pair of thieves for five hours as they cruised several park-and-ride lots. "They had a running list of the vehicles they were looking for," Swanson says, since converters in some larger cars contain more valuable metal than others. Also, the higher ground clearance on pickups, vans and SUVs allows thieves to saw off a converter in as little as 45 seconds.

Police say the thieves' backgrounds range from former auto-shop employees to addicts looking for quick money. Police in Puyallup, Wash., near Tacoma, attribute a rash of a half dozen thefts in November and December to meth users, although they haven't caught anyone yet, according to Sgt. Bob Thompson of the local P.D. Police in El Segundo, Calif., say a spree of nine thefts on Dec. 17 targeted mostly Toyotas, including one stolen from the parking lot at Mattel headquarters, according to Lt. Bob Turnbull. Later that day they arrested five people, operating in two separate cars. (One man was later released.) A week later, police arrested four others.

Platinum prices aren't expected to plummet soon, and experts offer few solutions to the rising thefts. Still, vehicle owners should park in well-lighted, patrolled lots and keep the car in a garage at home, some cops say. Spot welding can stop thieves who detach the converters with wrenches. But the problem still hasn't grown large enough for automakers to offer new security protections, according to Karl Brauer, editor in chief of the auto Web site "It'll take a certain amount of reaction from the public," Brauer says.

An Akron, Ohio, welding shop hasn't waited. American Welding now sells a steel cage called a "Catclamp," a device for cars and trucks that encases the converter, which was first developed last year for rental trucks, says the company's James Dusa. "The phone is ringing off the hook," says Dusa.

Another solution: strike at unscrupulous salvage-lot owners who knowingly buy converters from walk-in customers who aren't in the car business, says AAA's Nielson. "As long as there's someone willing to pay for it, someone will steal it," he says. In the wake of nationwide copper thefts from construction sites, some states passed laws requiring anyone recycling material to show an ID, and some localities have ordinances requiring sellers to show identification or receive payment by check--the same rules that govern pawn shops.

But police in Stockton, Calif., took more direct measures. After citizens reported 325 converter thefts by October of last year, and arrested thieves said they'd sold their stolen goods to a shop in nearby Manteca, detectives gave the store's owners a warning. But reports of further sales continued, so undercover officers posing as converter thieves showed up offered to sell the store devices they allegedly said had been stolen. Manager Dorene Carlson, 44, allegedly bought not only the converters, but, police say, told them "what models she'd pay more for," says Stockton P.D. Det. Roseann Clark. After two more undercover sales, Stockton cops brought along the media on Oct. 25--and arrested Carlson. She pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted receiving of stolen property, but faces a preliminary hearing Wednesday. But in the months since the highly publicized arrest, converter thefts in Stockton have only dropped slightly. Police clearly have their work cut out for them.