By the editorial board of the Herald
Those looking for an inflation hedge might consider investing in precious metals. Your local catalytic converter thief can vouch for their value.
Deep inside your vehicle’s exhaust system, the catalytic converter uses precious metals – rhodium, platinum and palladium – to convert your vehicle’s engine’s most harmful gases into less harmful emissions. By passing through a metal plate that contains the precious metals, much of the carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons and nitrous oxide is converted into carbon dioxide, water vapor and nitrogen.
It is work that has transformed these precious metals into essential workers in limiting the damage caused by air pollution and climate change. But the demand for these metals has increased their value and created a market for the theft of converters and sales to scrap yards and unscrupulous metal recyclers.
So how valuable are these precious metals?
Currently, rhodium trades for around $17,000 an ounce but went for over $26,000 an ounce last year. Even the small amount used in converters means auto parts can fetch between $50 and $500 at a metal dealer. And that potential payday has led to an increase over the past two years in converter thefts and, more dangerously, clashes between thieves and car owners.
the National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that converter thefts increased from 3,389 in 2019 to 14,433 in 2020 nationwide, with more than 2,300 reported thefts in December 2020 alone.
The value of these metals also means that replacing a stolen catalytic converter is not cheap. A theft that can be committed in minutes with a battery-powered saw can end up costing vehicle owners over $1,000 and losing the use of a vehicle while waiting for parts to arrive. Even if they are insured, most no longer have a deductible of $250 or more.
Until 2021, the Everett Police Department did not track converter thefts individually; that changed when flights increased rapidly last year. In response, the department launched the CatCon ID project, proposing to etch residents’ catalytic converters with the last eight digits of their car’s vehicle identification number and highlight it with high-temperature paint to render their illegal sale to dealers more difficult.
At the same time, state lawmakers are considering two bills to deal with what Senator Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, sponsor of one of the bills, called “the crime du jour.”
“Public safety and property rights are the drivers of this legislation,” Wilson said during a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Committee on Law and Justice. While many states are seeing the same increase in thefts and considering legislation, Washington state, Wilson said, leads the nation in theft rates, rising from 21 thefts per 100,000 vehicles in 2020 to 148. flights per 100,000 in 2021, according to been verified.
The first invoice House Bill 1815would require the Washington State Patrol to establish a task force to review state laws and a pilot project to better track thefts of catalytic converters using vehicle identification numbers and other identifiers.
Wilson’s bill, Senate Bill 5495, takes a more direct approach by adding precious metals to the list of materials for which scrap dealers must keep sales records; prohibits dealers from purchasing converters from anyone except commercial dealers and the owner of the vehicle from which the converter was removed; and would make knowingly receiving stolen material a serious offense, punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
Scrap industry lobbyists have raised objections to the Senate bill, noting that state law already makes it illegal to purchase stolen equipment; instead, they support the House bill.
There should be little doubt as to the reason for this preference; further study and investigation of the matter means that dealers and the scrap industry may delay taking further action to fix the problem and prevent illegal sales that lead to theft. And, yes, buying stolen equipment is already illegal, but that fact hasn’t slowed down thefts or the sale of stolen converters and their metals.
Arrests and prosecutions for catalytic converter thefts are often time-consuming and resource-consuming with only minimum sentences, Gary Ernsdorff of the King County District Attorney’s Office said during Tuesday’s hearing. At the same time, the market has proven to be very lucrative for the players involved.
“It’s a big deal. Recyclers and middlemen make a lot of money from these transactions,” Ernsdorff said. “Last year I saw a buyer on Facebook post a photo of his brand new Lamborghini, bought with proceeds from the catalytic converter. And it was his second Lamborghini.
Rather than spending more money pursuing convictions against thieves and illegal sellers, Ernsdorff sees tighter sales regulations that can create the demand for theft as the solution.
“The question for (legislators) is: are we throwing a lot of money at the supply side, locking ourselves in to get out of this problem, increasing the standard range (of condemnation) and imposing an additional burden to our criminal justice system or are we attacking it from the demand side with thoughtful regulation? “said the assistant prosecutor. “Spot the demand for stolen catalytic converters and you dry up thefts overnight.”
The additional regulation and collection of seller information, Ernsdorff said, is not an unreasonable requirement for scrap metal dealers.
“If you can afford a Lamborghini,” Ernsdorff said, “you can afford a few more minutes on a transaction that will earn you hundreds of dollars.”
And you’re less likely to have to worry about someone stealing the catalytic converter from your Italian sports car.
Project CatCon ID
The Next Everett Police Department Project CatCon ID The event, in partnership with automotive students from the Sno-Isle School of Technology, is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Jan. 29 at Sno-Isle Tech, 9001 Airport Road, Everett. The service is free and no appointment is necessary. The department also offers tips for preventing theft of catalytic converters tinyurl.com/CatConTipsEPD.