You probably wouldn’t know that your car’s catalytic converter was stolen until you went to start it in the morning.
But you’d hardly be alone, according to NYPD Det. Thomas Burke, who has spent 28 of his 38 years with the department in its Auto Crime Unit.
“Catalytic converter theft is not only a local problem,” Burke said, speaking during a virtual meeting of the 104th Precinct Community Council on Dec. 22. “It’s a statewide problem. It is a national problem. Believe it or not, it is a worldwide problem.”
The devices convert toxic gases and materials in automobile exhaust to less-harmful substances. Citywide, Burke said, their theft was up 332 percent last year over 2020.
They contain precious metals that can add up for a thief willing to put in a few hours a night cutting the parts from exhaust systems beneath vehicles.
Burke gave prices based on figures from last fall.
“Platinum in November was $1,059 an ounce,” he said. “Palladium was $2,069 an ounce. And this is the kicker — rhodium was $11,100 an ounce. They’re after those metals
“If you look at the other problems we’re having, mirrors, rims, air bags, here we’ve had decreases,” Burke said. “This is increasing. We want to target the problem.”
Robert Sinclair Jr., manager of media relations with AAA in New York, told the Chronicle it is certainly on their radar.
“Like many other crimes that have gone up during the pandemic and some of the hard times associated with it, we’re seeing people taking advantage,” Sinclair said. “Car thefts are up overall, and we don’t need to go into other crimes like shootings. This is up, too. And all it takes is one unscrupulous individual to buy them from you.”
An experienced thief with the proper cutting tool can be under a parked vehicle and have the device removed in short order.
Sinclair said thieves typically like to access vehicles with high ground clearance like pickup trucks and SUVs, though some Honda models also are popular. He also referred to an incident back in September up in Harrison, NY, in which a would-be thief made a fatal miscalculation.
“He hadn’t secured the jack properly,” Sinclair said.
Burke said some thefts have involved organized crime. Other people have gotten into the junk car business just to get into the metal trade. And there are some legal issues.
“It’s a nonviolent crime, so most people caught with catalytic converters get low or no bail and a desk appearance ticket,” he said. “Another issue is identifying them.”
The 104th Precinct Community Council is hosting an event at which people can get their vehicle identification numbers etched into their converters from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 22 at 74-10 88 St. in Glendale in coordination with the NYPD and Borough President Donovan Richards.
Burke even said he would send the precinct extra materials upon learning of the event, thus allowing it to help more car owners. He said even though unetched parts are impossible to trace if found in a junk yard, police can make a case if they find 100 in a given location, particularly if there are any on which the VIN etchings are defaced.
He also said many owners are having cages welded to their cars’ undercarriages to make the cats tougher to steal.
Sinclair said those work to a point; and that they can pose difficulty if they need to be removed for a maintenance issue.
“Nothing will stop a determined thief,” he said. “And if you have one unscrupulous person willing to buy them, all the etching in the world won’t help.”
Sinclair said things like motion sensor alarms are available, and that people can still use common-sense approaches like parking in secure, well-lit areas.