Catalytic converter thefts going strong as police search for solution

  • Lengths of exhaust pipe cut by a catalytic converter thief with a reciprocating saw and damaged oxygen sensors top a pile of scrap removed during repairs at WAWECO in West Hartford, Vt., Monday, July 12, 2021. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Monitor columnist
Published: 9/26/2021 4:30:04 PM

Concord Deputy Police Chief John Thomas says he’s got a plan that he hopes will crack the catalytic converter case wide open.

Area car dealers, meanwhile, are anxiously listening. They say stealing the cat converters from under their vehicles, and then mining them for platinum and palladium – precious metals buried within the converter and used to filter toxic emissions from the exhaust – has become an all-too-common crime.

Many car sellers in New England, in fact, are searching for answers to what has been described as another sort of epidemic. Law enforcement has been slow to stop it.

“I don’t want to tell you what we’re doing,” the deputy chief told me by phone, “but there is something we are working on to reel in this problem.”

These cat burglars are soft on their feet. They seem to have nine lives, far too many for local dealers to remain quiet. One spokesperson from a local company called it “a disaster,  a nightmare.”

David Albert owns Price Auto Sales in Concord. He understands that the police have limited resources. He respects what these officers do. He knows they can’t be in two places at once.

But, dagnabbit, Albert is sick of being victimized.

“A lot of people don’t think it’s worth it to call the police,” Albert told me. “It’s been at least six times that I have been ripped off. (The police) say it’s a big problem. I’m out of my mind with this. I should pay someone to sit in hiding and catch them in the act, but then what are you going to have to do. Hold them down?”

No easy solutions here. The obvious one is cameras around the perimeter of a car lot, or structured in some way to capture as much of the area as possible. But that has proven difficult.

Albert has seven or eight cameras but has been unable to clearly see thieves moving in from the woods and sliding under the backs of cars.

“You don’t see them,” Albert said. “A few nights ago it happened and I could see nothing.”

The ease with which cat burglars accomplish their goal is troubling as well. They look for trucks and SUVs, vehicles that are high off the ground, making them easier to crawl underneath, where the catalytic converter is externally located and easily removed.

The experienced crook can loosen bolts like a member of a speedy NASCAR pit crew. In a matter of mere minutes, they can saw through metal, cutting the converter free from the exhaust pipes holding it in place, then disappearing into the night, destined for a precious metal recycling center in exchange for money.

And while the crook is selling his converter for $1,500 or more, the car dealer is spending the same amount of money or more to replace the cat converter that was stolen from him.

There’s another problem hindering police from making arrests: Catalytic converters, for some unknown reason, don’t include identifying serial numbers, and that’s what frustrates police and state officials.

Pete McNamara, the president of the New Hampshire Auto Dealers Association, pointed out that an improved tracking system through the use of serial numbers is at least three years away, if it happens at all.

“I’m not sure it’s a solvable thing,” McNamara said. “The ring sells them and (the converter) is dismantled and they take out the metals and melt them down so you never see that catalytic converter again.”

“Locally,” McNamara continued, “the way is to catch thieves on camera, and we recommend well-lit lots and good quality cameras, and that tends to drive people away. The cops do what they can with the information they have. If something is identifiable, I’m sure they will run it down.”

McNamara says the issue surfaced about 12 years ago, when platinum’s value rose. That soon changed. Then it changed again.

“In 2008, 2009, thefts were going on then because you could make money off those precious metals,” McNamara said. “The thefts died down because the commodities were not as valuable to scrap yards, but now those metals have spiked, and they are more valuable.”

And that means individuals or organized networks have a smorgasbord of places to mine for what amounts to gold. Even the Grappone empire in Bow has not been immune to this crime spree, despite a heavy camera presence.

Larry Haynes, the president of the Grappone Automobile Club, said a handful of their high-off-the-ground vehicles have been vandalized over the past three or four months, forcing the company to store them inside overnight.

He said he called the police and gave them the videos. Apparently, there wasn’t enough proof to move forward.

“The police try to be helpful, but it’s difficult and there’s no real way to trace them with no numbers,” Haynes said. “Unless you catch them in the act, it’s hard to prove.”

Phillips Auto Sales in Chichester, founded by Larry and Maxine Phillips 40 years ago, has been lucky, according to Mike Phillips, the couple’s son and the new boss. He says there’s been just one incident involving a cat burglar, and that mission failed.

Something happened. The cat burglar or burglars got scared.

“Someone had a tool of some sort and they got the job halfway done,” Mike Phillips told me. “I’m sure it was the middle of the night, so there could have been a cruiser parked across the street.”

That would have done the trick. Stopped a crime in its tracks. But that was just by chance. A dragnet or specific plan is much more complex. That’s what local dealers are hoping for. And waiting for.

“We have multiple cases” Deputy Chief Thomas told me. “This is a big problem. Some departments have created task forces to find the connections. We are doing our due diligence on this matter, believe me, and we have been for some time.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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