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Police in Mass. investigate catalytic converter thieves chasing precious metals

Catalytic converters, like this one, are being stolen for the precious metals they contain. (Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
Catalytic converters, like this one, are being stolen for the precious metals they contain. (Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Catalytic converters in cars and trucks are an increasingly sought-after prize for thieves willing to crawl under vehicles and quickly carve the part out, local police departments say.

The component helps turn toxic exhaust fumes into less-dangerous pollutants. But police say it's the precious metals inside converters — platinum, rhodium and palladium — that have drawn the attention of scofflaws. Values for those metals have spiked in recent years.

Bridgewater Police Chief Chris Delmonte said his town is among those battling catalytic converter theft, and that the ability to flip stolen converters for a large profit will only cause more incidents.

"The other issue that's tied to that is not only economics, but it's ease of being able to obtain them, and how many and how quickly they can be [sold]," Delmonte said.

Delmonte said police are trying to identify not only the thieves, but also the second-hand dealers who buy converters and resell them. Sale prices can vary, he said, from estimates of $50 to up to several hundred dollars apiece depending on the vehicle type.

Chelmsford police said they, too, are investigating multiple catalytic converter thefts over the past month, including three that allegedly targeted town-owned vans parked at a local senior center.

The department released a list of safety tips, like installing a special anti-theft plate around the catalytic converter to keep it protected. Police also recommend parking your car inside your garage if you have one.

"Catalytic converters are expensive to replace, and unfortunately that means these thefts can have a significant financial impact on families, and especially those who are on fixed incomes," Chelmsford Police Chief James Spinney said in a statement.

Catalytic converter theft has skyrocketed across the nation, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks the issue. Its data show converter thefts grew 325% from 2019 to 2020.

"There is a clear connection between times of crisis, limited resources, and disruption of the supply chain that drives these thefts," the group said in an April press release.

Legislation moving through Congress aims to curb catalytic converter theft by requiring manufacturers to give the part a unique number, making stolen converters easier to identify on the black market.

With reporting from WBUR's Dave Faneuf.

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Jack Mitchell is an associate producer in WBUR's newsroom. He works across a wide spectrum of departments and shows — from the newscast unit, to WBUR.org, to Radio Boston.

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