Crime

The Unkindest Cut: Yes, My Catalytic Converter Was Stolen

Jay Vollmar
The six hours spent in the airport, on a plane, in another airport and then on light rail was more time than I’d slept in days. I’d fought the weekend trip, and the weekend trip won.

Hung over, tired and in no shape to handle the reality of life, I made my way to the parking lot and, with frozen pizza and pillows on my mind, started my car. Only it didn’t sound like a car anymore.

The exhaust sounded worse than my great Aunt Gladys after walking up a flight of stairs: loud, grinding and full of phlegm. I realized the problem before my Toyota 4Runner lurched out of the parking spot: The catalytic converter was gone.

Even if my brain cells could have reacted, there would have been no shock. The only real surprise was that it hadn’t happened sooner. Colorado has the highest rate of auto theft per capita in the country, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and it also has one of the highest rates of catalytic converter thefts.

Coveted for both resale and the recycling of their precious metals, catalytic converters have had big black-market potential since their widespread adoption. They’re easy to remove from a car’s undercarriage, they’re virtually untraceable after being stolen, and they bring in quick cash from metal scrappers.

In 2021 there were 9,811 reported catalytic converter thefts across the state, according to the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority (CATPA), an arm of the Colorado State Patrol, up from 189 in 2019. That’s an increase of more than 5,000 percent — and Denver’s seen an even steeper climb. Over a three-year span, the city’s reports of catalytic converter loss and theft increased 119,250 percent, going from three in 2018 to 2,387 in 2021. This year’s numbers are slightly ahead of that, according to the Denver Police Department.

“Any time you have economic hardship and downturn, we historically see property crimes follow that redline. We saw auto theft spike in the economic recession of 2008 and, unfortunately, we’ve seen recent pandemic trends follow that and then some,” says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association. “This isn’t just something for people who live in the city or metro areas. It’s a problem everywhere.”

A slowing economy isn’t the only reason catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed. The rise in crime is also connected to a crippled supply chain, new state emissions regulations and record prices in precious metals. We’ve hit a sweet spot for catalytic crime, and it’s only getting sweeter.

And louder.
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Most catalytic converters are easy to find underneath a car.
Seth Sawyers/Flickr
Of all the questions people asked after hearing about my recent brush with auto theft, the most common was this: “What does a catalytic converter do?”

A catalytic converter is a device installed on a combustion engine to control emissions by using a slurry of precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium to convert toxic gases and pollutants into less-toxic gases and pollutants. Most commonly found on cars, catalytic converters are also used on engines of motorcycles, buses, locomotives, heavy machinery, electrical generators, ships and even some stoves.

The earliest forms were invented in nineteenth-century France, but it took nearly 100 years for them to become widely adopted. The modern form was developed at the Engelhard Corporation in New Jersey in 1973, but versions of converters were receiving patents in the United States as early as the 1950s.

Why did it take so long for catalytic converters to catch on? One theory is so shady that it inspired a 2021 crime thriller from Steven Soderbergh, No Sudden Move, with a cast that includes Matt Damon and Denver East High School alumnus Don Cheadle and a plot fueled by the U.S. Department of Justice. The movie involved a lot more one-liners, excitement and murder than was possible to confirm, but the real story is slimy enough.

In 1953, America’s big three automobile manufacturers — Chrysler, Ford and General Motors — and the Automobile Manufacturers Association announced that they had partnered to study pollution-reduction technology. But instead, the group conspired to block the introduction of any such devices, including catalytic converters, according to a 1969 antitrust case filed by the DOJ.

The auto industry’s legal defense successfully moved the case from Los Angeles to a more favorable court in Washington, D.C., where a grand jury investigation was replaced with a consent decree between the federal government and the auto industry. Per the decree, the industry pledged to do better — but instead defeated state legislation aimed at creating cleaner car emissions for years. In 1971, California House Representative Phillip Burton exposed a memo in the DOJ case showing that auto manufacturers were indeed trying to suppress pollution reduction technology while lying to the public and elected officials.

Our overlords finally accepted that we had a smog problem, but they didn’t institute a widespread adoption of catalytic converters until 1975. Still, the U.S. was the first country to do so, and these doohickeys have proved pretty important to the environment.

On top of reducing pollutants by up to 98 percent, according to Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, catalytic converters take up a decent chunk of a car’s exhaust system, so when one is removed, you’ll feel and hear it — hence the jalopy-sounding shitbox I drove home that fateful Sunday morning. And my driving ended at home, as vehicle emissions laws in Colorado make it illegal to drive a state-registered vehicle without a catalytic converter.

Scrapyards have always been willing to pay for the metals inside of catalytic converters, which can also include cerium, iron, manganese and nickel. However, increasing prices and a decreasing supply of precious metals have created a spike in demand. Platinum, the most common metal in converters, sold for around $900 per ounce in June, according to market estimates, while rhodium sold for more than $1,300 an ounce and palladium for over $1,800.

Generally, each exhaust pipe in a car equals one catalytic converter, and most cars have just one. But a dual-exhaust system requires two converters, and some vehicles have even more. Secondhand converters can currently sell anywhere from $50 to $500 on the black market, and models on larger vehicles or turbo engines can fetch upwards of $1,000.
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Exhaust Pros owner Howard Cave prefers to work on hot rods, but his schedule is full with replacing catalytic converters.
Evan Semon
Some cars are easier targets than others, but few are safe. My Toyota 4Runner, a 2004 model, didn’t have the most valuable converter, but it was easily accessible under the car’s high undercarriage, essentially an open invitation for thieves. Toyota Priuses and Honda Elements are particularly attractive because their hybrid systems have more precious metals, according to CATPA and the DPD, while the Chevrolet Equinox, Subaru Forester and Outback, Ford F-150 and Econoline and several other Honda and Toyota models are also enticing. New and expensive cars are popular, too.

“Some of these replacements are so new, they have to be bought from a licensed dealership,” says Howard Cave, owner and manager of Aurora’s Exhaust Pros, and that adds both time and costs. “There’s a [Mercedes] G-Wagon in my shop right now. All four of the converters on it were stolen, and it’s not the first time that car has come in.”

The longtime mechanic has been operating the shop since 1994 and has seen all sorts of vehicles come in without catalytic converters. Over the past two years, Cave has replaced converters on luxury vehicles, church buses, motorhomes and everything in between. Replacements usually cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,900, depending on the make and model, but a Prius model can run almost $5,000 — and that’s only if a converter replacement is the sole repair, he notes.

Most catalytic converter thefts are done quickly and loudly with a reciprocating saw like a Sawzall. The lowlife who stole mine at least had the courtesy to cut up my car cleanly, but not everyone is lucky enough to get the street surgeon I did.

“It depends on where it’s cut out. They cut the easy ones underneath the car, but in some cases they can do much more damage. If carbon monoxide comes in the car, the oxygen sensors won’t read it correctly, and it adds more fuel [to the engine]. Then your fuel economy goes haywire,” Cave explains. “I’m also constantly repairing and replacing ones that people have tried to put in themselves.”

"They cut the easy ones underneath the car, but in some cases they can do much more damage."

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Although Cave admits that the work is good for his business’s bottom line, he’s not happy about it. He used to look forward to summers at his muffler shop, when he typically worked on hot rods. The last few years, however, his garage and parking lot have been full of insurance cases.

“If cars aren’t on the road because of all of this stuff, then I’m closed, so my parking lot is totally filled up. I have more vehicles waiting on approval from insurance companies than anything else,” he says. “And you can’t leave a hot rod outside overnight. Those jobs take all day long, yet I’m jammed up with all of these converter replacements.”

Cave calls the situation “terrible for the common consumer,” and he’s not just referencing theft. In 2018, then-Governor John Hickenlooper and the state Air Quality Control Commission adopted standards that began requiring new cars and newly installed catalytic converters to pass stricter emissions tests than the federal government required. According to Cave, aftermarket suppliers have taken advantage of this, and some older cars now need replacements that are harder to find than brand-new models.

“Colorado adopted these rules without having a plan in place, because not every vehicle on the road has a listing for a compliant converter,” he notes. “I had a car in my parking lot for a month waiting for someone to come up with a converter that could [legally] be put on the vehicle.”
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Catalytic converters use a mix of precious metals to reduce exhaust pollutants by up to 98% percent.
Evan Semón
Sometimes insurance disputes hold up the repair, and sometimes it’s the car owner’s lack of insurance. Coverage for catalytic converters is considered comprehensive in Colorado, and it’s not part of liability coverage, so drivers don’t need it to be on the road.

Having to pay full freight for an entire repair can empty savings accounts or span multiple paychecks for some Coloradans. And without a car legally allowed to operate on roadways, they could lack a way to get to work. According to Rocky Mountain’s Walker, who represents property insurers in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, the cost of repairs has also gone up with the rise of catalytic converter thefts.

“We’re seeing higher prices and time for repairs. Some of that is from the increasing cost of high tech, but we also have labor and supply-chain shortages,” she says. “Then it becomes whether your insurance covers it, how much your deductible is, and how much that repair costs. In some cases, they may declare it a total loss on an older vehicle — and if you carry a high deductible, you may be stuck paying for the entire repair.”

Living without a secured parking spot in Capitol Hill, one of Denver’s most crowded neighborhoods, I always half-expected to find a hole in my rear window or, more recently, my catalytic converter stolen. My car insurance went up $9 a month after I reported my new address, and I’d seen my fair share of theft and defecation living a block off Lincoln Street. But my car was probably safer on the street in Cap Hill than in the shark-infested waters where I’d left it floating during that weekend trip: a light-rail parking lot en route to the airport.

“We have seen places frequently hit where vehicles are going to be sitting for a while. Places like parking lots, parking garages and businesses with fleets of trucks and vans,” DPD spokesman Doug Schepman confirms. “If a business isn’t open on Saturday and Sunday, then those vehicles could be targeted, because there is less of a risk of being contacted by someone.”

“We have seen places frequently hit where vehicles are going to be sitting for a while."

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Other than parking the vehicle in a locked home garage or installing a plated undercarriage on the car, there’s not much an owner can do to secure a catalytic converter. All areas of the state, urban and rural, are seeing high rates of converter thefts, and any accepted protective measures are mostly preventative obstacles, Schepman admits.

Metal cages can be installed over converters, but those can be cut through. Etching a vehicle’s VIN number onto a converter has become an attainable option in hopes of stopping resales or catching stolen items, but a VIN number etching won’t show up in recycled platinum or rhodium. Still, a metal cage likely takes more time to cut through than a thief wants to spend, and VIN number etchings could help deter criminals if adopted on a wider scale, according to CATPA spokesman and Colorado State Patrol sergeant Troy Kessler.

“If you stop a truck full of unmarked converters, there’s really no way to show evidence of them being stolen. It’s hard to prove,” Kessler says. “At least the etchings are somewhat of a deterrent. If you go to a reputable business owner who wants to stay in business, they’re not going to want to take a catalytic converter that has a label showing it’s stolen.”

Local law enforcement agencies, CATPA and AAA have partnered to host various VIN etching events in Colorado where several thousand catalytic converters are etched in order to discourage thieves from selling them on the secondary market. Kessler says that CATPA has another 1,000 etching jobs in the works, but state funding for AAA’s program ran out in July, according to AAA Colorado spokesman (and occasional Westword contributor) Skyler McKinley.

A former aide on Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial staff, McKinley doesn’t see catalytic converter thefts significantly decreasing until the economy improves or aggressive legislative reform is implemented.
“When making tough economic choices during hard times, a lot of people make the choice not to have insurance,” he says. “You also have folks who have their backs up against the wall economically and have to commit crimes to survive, and oftentimes they’re committing crimes against people who depend on their cars to get to and from work.”

Despite the oppressive economic cycle, McKinley is optimistic that legislation passed earlier this year will help address the issue. One state bill requires junk and metal scrapyards to keep more detailed records of catalytic converter transactions, with any person who buys five or more vehicles for scrap and reclaim purposes inside of a twelve-month span now required to report all vehicles to the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. A separate measure establishes more penalties for selling or transporting a stolen or tampered vehicle emissions system, while yet another bill appropriated over $400,000 in grants to further investigate and monitor catalytic converter theft.

“These were based off model legislation that other states have passed. Both of them go a long way in establishing those guardrails we need. Functionally, we needed to come up with these, just so catalytic converters can be tracked by law enforcement,” McKinley says. “It could also help determine whether or not a catalytic converter has been properly sourced.”

Although Schepman and Kessler agree that law enforcement could certainly use more resources in tracking catalytic converter theft, neither could say whether the crimes are more closely connected to organized rings or opportunistic thieves. They admit that handling the theft of actual cars and solving higher-profile crimes are higher priorities.

But if you see a pair of legs dangling from underneath your car one night, the cops don’t want you to take matters into your own hands, either. Reports of lookouts brandishing weapons and assaults during catalytic converter thefts aren’t uncommon, DPD and CATPA note. In March, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office reported that catalytic converter theft suspects had shot at a car owner who confronted them.

“We’d never recommend anyone contact the thief by themselves. Nine times out of ten, they’re carrying a weapon, and your life is way more valuable than a catalytic converter. It’s a pain to get fixed, but it’s not as bad as losing your life,” Kessler warns. “Call 911, video-record it if you can, and try to stay hidden but get a good description. If they get in a car, try to get the license plate. Be as good a witness as you can, but we want you stay just that: a witness.”

For some property owners, that’s easier said than done. I was never faced with the decision of stomping on someone’s shins as they sawed off my converter or standing by and calling the police. Running on a fried brain after three days of no sleep, who’s to say what I would have done?
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Lakewood resident Elizabeth Bossert stopped a man from sawing off a catalytic converter underneath her partner's car.
Evan Semón
Elizabeth Bossert found herself in that situation, and she chose confrontation.

The Lakewood resident says that her townhome community, near West 20th Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, has been stricken with property theft. Cars are broken into on a semi-regular basis, she says, and packages often disappear from porches. The majority of her Christmas deliveries were stolen in 2021, and days before we spoke, her neighbors had woken to bikes missing from their balcony and a ladder against it leading down to the ground.

Although police respond to calls and visit her neighborhood regularly, Bossert doesn’t feel like thieves have much fear of reprisal unless they’re caught in the act. And as she sat at home with a case of COVID-19 in May, that’s exactly what happened.

She was sitting outside when a car with an unrecognizable man and woman pulled into her townhome community’s parking lot. The woman got out and wandered around the property before noticing Bossert. She got back in the car and it drove away, and Bossert went back inside her home.

“My partner was sleeping, and all of sudden I hear this terrible noise. At first I thought it was maintenance, but maintenance had occurred on the property days before. Then I thought it was a neighbor making noise, but my dog looked disturbed,” she recalls.

Remembering the mysterious woman and thinking about a co-worker’s recent experience with catalytic converter theft, she walked outside to investigate and found the source of the noise: her partner’s Honda Element, with two male legs stretching out from underneath.

“I don’t remember leaving my patio, but I guess I have a fighting response. I ran up to him and kicked him, because he didn’t hear me screaming at him. He rolled out from under the car with a handheld Sawzall in his hand, and I shoved him and started yelling at him to get away from my car,” she recalls.

At that point, several of Bossert’s neighbors were outside. The man ran to his car, now driven by the woman Bossert had encountered earlier, and the two sped away. Police told her the license plate on the klepto-couple’s getaway car was stolen and registered to another vehicle.

“Talking with neighbors afterward, I learned that my adrenaline was up and I probably shouldn’t have done that,” Bossert says, but she wasn’t thrilled with the police response, either.

“They requested that I go online to fill out the police report instead of making it in person. They didn’t even want to come out for it because it was considered over at that point, which was frustrating,” she adds. “It was kind of traumatic, what just happened, and then not to be checked in by law enforcement. As a resident, I feel like police are not going to do anything, so now I have a taser, and we’ve invested in a home video camera.”

"I feel like police are not going to do anything, so now I have a taser."

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Theft of property valued at less than $2,000 is a misdemeanor in Colorado, Kessler points out, and he argues that recent developments have hampered police response throughout the state.

“You’ve got a lot of things going on right now, with all of the social justice reform, the struggle in staffing, high motor vehicle theft and other crimes. The thing is, catalytic converter and auto theft itself go hand in hand, but even if you put the value at a couple thousand dollars, the part itself is not all that expensive,” he says. “Obviously police are limited. We can’t be everywhere at once.”

Meanwhile, catalytic converter thieves will be, until the resale market disappears or precious metal prices crash. Proper policies at scrapyards could help tamp down on the crime, law enforcement argues. The DPD reached out to metal-recycling businesses last year, Schepman notes, “but there aren’t too many within the city of Denver,” and police are “relying on industry rules that are laid out.”

Most authorities believe the majority of catalytic converter metal recycling is done on the black market, while converter resales are hard to track. Westword reached out to nine metal scrapyards in the Denver area, but none responded to inquiries. A tenth, Atlas Metal, a metal recycler in Aurora and Denver, noted only that it purchases converters from commercial accounts.

“I see ads all the time claiming to buy junk catalytic converters. It says in the ad, ‘Don’t sell us stolen CATS,’ but where else are they selling them? The recycling yards have too much restrictions to do it, I think,” Cave says. “But I have people calling me all the time, claiming to be travelers or businessmen, looking for catalytic converter cores. It’s not slowing down a bit.”

VIN etching is the state’s most frequent line of defense for now — go to lockdownyourcar.org for a calendar of free etching events taking place in Colorado — but even McKinley, whose organization has helped etch 4,000 catalytic converters for free, calls it “a drop in the bucket.”

But at least it’s something. “If someone working at a scrapyard saw a catalytic converter that was spray-painted in bright colors or had VIN numbers etched on it, my guess is they probably wouldn’t try to sell it,” Schepman maintains.

Beyond the etching, law enforcement officers recommend keeping cars parked in garages if possible, as well as watching for suspicious activity in the neighborhood. And if you can afford it, make sure catalytic converter theft is part of your insurance coverage.

“Be aware of the insurance you have,” Walker advises. “With the spikes we’re seeing in auto theft, check your policy to make sure you carry comprehensive coverage. During economic hardship, it may be tempting to cut corners on insurance.”

Converter theft was part of my $100-per-month insurance coverage, and I filed a police report shortly after mine was stolen. Even if you have to do it online, as Bossert and I did, it’s worth the time, as police reports are required for insurance claims on stolen items. My insurance provider eventually handled my claim, but not before a good amount of time had passed.

First I was told the earliest I could schedule an inspection was six weeks down the road at a partnered mechanic, with no option for an independent mechanic. After some back-and-forth over the phone (don’t do this online, millennials and Gen Zers), I was able to get a solo inspector to come look at my car.

The claims inspector was in and out in less than fifteen minutes before writing me a check that paid for the repair and then some. I was even given a ridiculous red Dodge Challenger by Enterprise Rent-A-Car to use for a couple of days. And when I tried to return it to the Broadway location, I learned that a fatal drive-by shooting had occurred, right where I was standing, less than 24 hours before.

During this pandemic, people have lost their cars, months of savings and so much more as Colorado reckons with a rise in crime.

My life, although inconvenienced, could be much worse.

I could be driving a G-Wagon.
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell