What’s one of the easiest, quickest and most expensive things that can be stolen from your vehicle? Items left inside the car, such as your registration, IDs and credit cards. Perhaps a license plate and maybe even your tires, if the thieves move at the pace of a NASCAR pit crew.
But one item is being stolen in spades in Denver, and it may be something you’ve never heard of until recently (certainly this non-mechanic reporter hadn’t). It’s your catalytic converter.
“If you have a battery operated Sawzall with a sharp blade, you can probably get one off in a couple of minutes,” said Chuck Clark, the general manager of Colorado Junk Cars in Commerce City.
Clark added that the process is even easier in trucks and SUVs because the vehicle doesn’t need to be jacked up.
Catalytic converter thefts are on the rise across the U.S. In Denver, the numbers are startling.
According to data from Denver police, 993 converters were stolen from January to May this year. Only 261 catalytic converters were stolen in all of 2020.
As of June 23, the Central Park neighborhood in east Denver has been the hardest hit, with 73 stolen converters. Northeast Park Hill has had 57 converters stolen, Montbello 43, Hampden 42 and Capitol Hill 41. Cherry Creek and Auraria have seen the least thefts, with one apiece.
Let’s back up for a minute. What’s a catalytic converter?
The converter looks like a small muffler near the car’s exhaust system. It cleans the fumes coming from the exhaust, so the emitted gases, such as carbon monoxide, come out at more environmentally safe levels.
Clark said converters are on “pretty much every car made from the mid-’70s through today.” They’re made with precious metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, which make them valuable, and they can be stolen easily.
Residents can’t physically see if their converter is stolen at first glance, but once the car is turned on, the vehicle will make a loud roaring sound. The sound will grow louder when the gas pedal is pressed.
So why the rise in thefts, if converters have been around since the ’70s? Clark said it may be the pandemic. With the loss of jobs, he guessed that people have turned to more “nefarious” ways of earning income. According to city data, catalytic converters thefts increased slowly in 2020, going from one in January to 71 in December.
But factory shutdowns are also an issue, he said.
“The prices of metals have increased over the last year because a lot of mines that were mining the materials also shut down,” Clark said. “There’s no new material available.”
Clark said on average, a converter sells for about $250. If the converter is stolen from a hybrid car, like a Toyota Prius, the value increases to $1,500. Large scraping yards may not take a converter from a single person, but Clark said Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist often have ads requesting converters for cash.
Denver Police Department spokesperson Jay Casillas said the city has been in touch with several scrap yards to help investigate and deter thefts.
DPD has offered several methods to combat converter theft, encouraging residents to head to a mechanic to get the converter welded to the vehicle if it’s attached by bolts. Some mechanics are also offering to put cages around converters.
Residents can also get their converter etched with a VIN number or have their converter spray painted by a professional. Casillas said the markings on the converter work like a registration system and can make finding the converter easier if it’s stolen. He said the markings also deter thieves because the converter may be harder to sell.
Recently, DPD held a converter etching event at Lincoln College of Technology in Montbello. More of these events may happen in the future.
Clark said he hopes that once the mines are up and running, the price of converters will go down as materials become readily available.
But for now, he said there isn’t much residents can do.
“You can put your VIN number on the cat, paint it with ceramic paint, but all that can be ground off,” Clark said. “If someone wants the cat, they’re going to take it. But the added security will make it take longer to steal. Thieves want something quick, not something you have to fight with.”