RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – In the small town of Lawrenceville, Virginia, a van owned by Poplar Mount Baptist Church was knocked out of service for several weeks after thieves cut the catalyst out of its exhaust system.
Several months later, across town, a catalyst was ripped from a van owned by First Baptist Church.
Similar crimes followed, targeting a total of 15 church wagons and 13 other vehicles in the city, part of a nationwide increase in thefts of catalysts.
Thefts of the exhaust emission control devices has risen over the past two years as the prices of the precious metals they contain have risen. Thieves can expect to get anywhere from $ 50 to $ 300 if they sell the inverters to scrap yards, which then sell them to recycling plants to recycle the precious metals inside, including platinum, palladium and rhodium.
For victims, the cost of replacing a stolen catalytic converter can easily go up to $ 1,000 and make their vehicle immobile for days or weeks as the part is ordered and installed. It can also make owners feel vulnerable.
“Just feeling like the church property was invaded by thieves was discouraging,” said John Robinson, a member of Poplar Mount Baptist Church.
Robinson said replacing the stolen converter cost about $ 1,000. The theft was covered by insurance, but the church had to pay its $ 250 deductible and was unable to use the van for six weeks as it sat in a mechanic’s yard waiting for a new part.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau said the number of catalyst thefts reported in insurance claims increased from 3,389 in 2019 to 14,433 in 2020. NICB President David Glawe said there has been a significant increase in thefts since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is an opportunistic crime,” Glawe said in a statement. “As the value of the precious metals contained in the catalysts continues to rise, so does the number of thefts of these entities. There is a clear link between times of crisis, limited resources and supply chain disruption driving investors towards these precious metals. “
The rise in thefts has led states across the country to tighten penalties and make new demands on scrap dealers who buy the converters. Ten states passed new legislation in 2021, including laws in Arkansas, South Carolina and Texas, which require scrap buyers of used converters to keep records of purchases, including proof of ownership, vehicle identification numbers, seller’s home address and driver’s license numbers, according to the insurance agency.
In North Carolina, a law that went into effect on December 1 makes the theft of catalysts a Class I crime and requires companies that buy used catalysts to obtain documentation and keep detailed records of people who sell the units to them.
A bill modeled on the North Carolina law will be introduced in Virginia when the legislature meets again in January. The measure would make the theft of a catalyst a crime and assume that anyone in possession of someone who has been removed from a vehicle has obtained it illegally, unless the person is an authorized scrap seller or has a sales note, receipt or other documentation.
“It would make it more risky for thieves to steal them,” said Senator Frank Ruff Jr., who sponsors the bill. “The sellers would have to show more identification, and at the same time the salvage dealer would not want to get in trouble, so he would be less likely to allow them to sell to him.”
Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Roberts, who has seen the number of thefts in his area grow from seven to nine annually to 28 this year, said converters can be stolen in minutes. Thieves only need to crawl under a vehicle and use a battery-powered reciprocating saw to cut through the metal and remove the part, he said.
In Henrico County, where about 540 catalysts have been reported stolen this year, police have made public service announcements to raise awareness.
David Overby, owner of Auto Repairs Plus, said he spent more than $ 5,000 on lighting and a security system with cameras after thieves repeatedly stole catalysts from his customers’ cars in his parking lot. Overby said police arrested two people caught on his cameras in stealing converters, but he said under current law they were only charged with one offense.
“These people need to be held accountable somehow, not given a slap on the wrist,” Overby said.
At Chesterfield Auto Parts, where customers can pull parts from junk cars, owner Troy Webber said his workers remove catalysts before making the vehicles available to the public, and then lock the units in steel containers before selling them to auto users. That does not stop thieves from trying to break in, he said.
“People are constantly cutting through our fences to try to steal the catalysts,” he said.
Henrico Police Chief Eric English said catalysts have been cut from vehicles parked in homeowners’ driveways. Police have advised people on anti-theft measures, including protective shields and covers for the inverters. They have also offered to stencil a mark on catalysts so that scrap dealers and recyclers can more easily identify a stolen converter.
“It’s definitely something we need to get to grips with because it’s causing a lot of families and a lot of people some heartburn,” English said. “It’s not something people deserve to happen to them.”