MESA, AZ — The stolen catalytic converter industry is booming, and existing Arizona laws designed to prevent fencing of the auto part seem ineffective.
In Mesa, just one catalytic converter was reported stolen in 2019. In 2020, 69 were reported stolen. Mesa police said there was a tenfold increase in just one year. In 2021, officers took 631 stolen catalytic converter reports.
Meanwhile, drivers are paying hundreds - if not thousands - of dollars to replace their catalytic converters.
Scottsdale Realtor Tara Riley notice a loud sound when she started her Toyota 4Runner one December afternoon.
"It almost sounded like the exhaust had fallen off," Riley said.
She had left the SUV in an open parking lot for a few hours.
"It's very frustrating," Riley said. "You feel so violated."
"Nobody's safe out there," said Mitch Medina from International Mufflers in Phoenix.
Medina said sometimes fleet vehicles are hit by thieves. He's fixed up to 10 trucks from the same company in one day, but most of his customers are regular car owners.
"Before this thing started, we would see maybe one vehicle every month," said Medina. "Now we see three to five a day."
Catalytic converters are hot commodities because they contain precious metals like platinum, palladium, and rhodium, which skyrocketed in price in the last few years. In January 2019, rhodium was worth $2,307 per ounce, according to kitco.com. In January 2022, it is worth $15,294 per ounce. Thieves sell the catalytic converters, so the precious metals can be recycled into new products.
Arizona already tries to prevent fencing. It's a misdemeanor for a scrap metal dealer to buy a catalytic converter unless it's "acquired in transactions with industrial accounts, with other scrap metal dealers or after the scrap metal is authorized for release by a peace officer of that jurisdiction."
"And all of those transactions, the metal, and the records are open and available to law enforcement at any time," said Steve Levetan with the Arizona Scrap Recyclers Association.
Police say the crooks are finding loopholes.
"There are folks on the street that will take it for $80 to $100" said Tempe Police Sgt. Hector Encinas. "They'll also exchange it to support their drug habits."
When the ABC15 Investigators looked online, we found multiple ads on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and OfferUp. The ads were not from scrap yards but from other people offering cash for catalytic converters.
Catalytic converters have no identifying markings or serial numbers, and that's what makes it frustrating for police. Once the part is off of a vehicle, there's no way to trace it.
"We've had reports that they get shipped out of state," Sgt. Encinas said. "Now you're talking about cross-jurisdiction, and it just becomes kind of a mess."
"Once they've extracted the catalyst from inside the heat shield, I have no idea where it came from," explained Corporal Nate Bradley with the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Law enforcement agents believe some of the catalytic converters are resold several times eventually to someone who may be legally allowed to sell the parts to an Arizona scrap yard.
The owners of International Muffler admit they have been propositioned.
"We get people just riding bikes, just people walking with backpacks filled with catalytic converters," Medina said. "I'm like, 'Hey, where do you get that from?' And they're like, 'Oh, I just found them.' I'm like, 'I don't think so.'"
Scrap metal dealers and law enforcement agents are working together to tighten up the laws in Arizona and other states. They hope to get a bill introduced and passed during this legislative session.
"Limit the individuals and businesses that can legally sell catalytic converters," Levetan said. "If you're not one of those very limited numbers of businesses that becomes a crime."
Riley said she filed a police report about her stolen catalytic converter, and she paid nearly $2,000 to make the repairs.
"I have been researching some solutions to try and prevent this from happening again," Riley said.
Here's what you can do to deter the catalytic converter thieves:
- Paint your catalytic converter a bright color using heat-safe paint
- Etch your VIN or license plate number onto the part
- Park in a garage or other secure location
- Install an anti-theft device such as a cage or shield bolted to the underside of your vehicle