Six stolen every day in Seattle: Everything you wanted to know about the astronomical spike in catalytic converter thefts

Six stolen every day in Seattle: Everything you wanted to know about the astronomical spike in catalytic converter thefts

Catalytic converter thefts are at unprecedented levels, spiking more than 1,000 percent in Seattle between 2019 and 2021. So far this year, the daily average number of catalytic converter thefts have surged to six cases every single day in Seattle.

That daily average has increased since March, when it was about five thefts per day. In fact, 2021 thefts are on track to triple the cases in 2020.

The spike in thefts is impacting every county in Western Washington.

Thieves are looking for the precious metals inside the car part, which is an anti-pollution device that filters out the majority of toxic emissions and helps vehicles function properly.

Reputable recyclers like Binford Metals in Kent say they’ll pay up about $1,000 for a catalytic converter from a car like a Prius. But because of all the crime surrounding the car part, they now very rarely purchase from the general public. The company said back in the early 2000s, the average price for a catalytic converter was $22.

>>RELATED: Catalytic converter thefts surge about 1000 percent in Seattle

The King County Sheriff’s Office says on the black market, a Prius catalytic converter can fetch even more than a grand.

But why the sudden surge in price, and thefts? People in the business of car repairs and metal recycling say there are a variety of reasons.

Alexander’s Metals in Sultan says there is a major shortage of raw materials driving the problem. One reason the pandemic shut down mines and shipments coming from South Africa, one of the world’s primary sources for rhodium. (The other is Russia.)

Plus, as other countries like China increase emissions standards, the need for catalytic converters is increasing, which also drives up the demand for rhodium – and the price.

The repair work is keeping Dan Fast Muffler and Brake in Lynnwood busy.

“That Toyota (catalytic converter) is $1,450 to replace,” said Jay O’Neill, the manager at Dan Fast Muffler and Brake, about a repair job the crew was working on. “The price of the catalytic converters keep going up and up and up,” he said. He said the costs of the parts are so high, the shop actually earns very little per job.

The valuable part is inside your catalytic converter, where there is a ceramic block that O’Neill calls the “ceramic biscuit.”

It’s infused with precious metals – platinum, pallidum, and the really pricey one – rhodium.

Rhodium is currently selling for $28,000 dollars per ounce – that’s 15 times the price of gold.

Both Binford Metals and Alexander’s Metals said the radium, once refined, primarily goes back towards car manufacturers to make more catalytic converters. Small amounts of radium is also used in electronic wiring and jewelry plating.

Someone committing the crime only needs a cordless saw. Cutting off the car part can take less than 30 seconds. If thieves steal your catalytic converter – you’ll know immediately.

“The mover goes to move the truck, to back it in, and we hear a really loud noise. It was like a big, ‘Bang!’” said Tanya Nazariya, owner of Brilliant Staging and Design in Everett.

A theft happened in January outside their business on a Saturday. Nazariya said the company had just purchased a new box truck to move furniture and do staging jobs.

It appears from surveillance video Nazariya’s cameras captured, that a team worked together to pull off the catalytic converter theft.

“They knew what they were doing,” Nazariya said.

Her cameras caught a man on the phone on the property, and someone blowing leaves.

“He was wearing his reflective vest, leaf blower everything – it looked pretty legit,” she said.

A neighbor’s camera shows a man in a hoodie speaking with the person leaf blowing. Then you see him crawl under the truck. Shortly after, he walks out with the catalytic converter.

Tanya thinks the leaf blower was used to cover up the noise of the saw.

Tanya says she had just purchased the truck used from another business owner – a sale that was delayed, because someone stole the catalytic converters off the truck while it was still with the previous owner.

“It’s just crazy,” Tanya said. “The same truck was hit twice in maybe a month,” she said.

>>RELATED: Man clung to hood of fleeing car after interrupting catalytic converter theft, according to Mountlake Terrace police

KIRO7′s Deedee Sun obtained data from a variety of law enforcement agencies across the Sound and found so far this year just in Seattle, criminals are cutting off and stealing an average of six catalytic converters every day.

The spike is most significant in Seattle – increasing more than 1000% compared to thefts in 2019, when there were only 13 thefts the entire year. Seattle saw 738 thefts in 2020, and as of May 11 this year, Seattle has seen 802 catalytic converter thefts. That means 2021 is on track to triple the number of thefts that happened in 2020.

The trend is happening all over the region.

The crime is a problem that’s happening all over Washington State – and across the country.

“Wherever we see a concentration of cars – park-and-rides, complexes, for them it’s almost like an orchard they can go out there and harvest,” said Sgt. Tim Meyer of the King County Sheriff’s Office.

Detectives are working to stop the cycle, but Meyer admits it’s a crime that can be difficult to pin down. The parts have no vin numbers, just a part number that doesn’t tie it back to the vehicle it came from. That means if someone gets pulled over with a trunk full of converters, it can be tough to do something about it at the moment.

“Because we can’t prove how they obtained them,” Meyer said. “Simply possessing a catalytic converter is not a crime. While we may suspect it was acquired through some shady circumstances, it can be very, very difficult to prove,” Meyer said.

Washington State tightened laws in 2013 to require buyers and sellers to show keep documentation when recycling metals that include catalytic converters. (RCW 19.290.020).

“You need to be able to identify the vehicle it was taken from,” Meyer said.

He says detectives are going through online ads, looking for buyers. A quick search on Craigslist, Offer Up, Facebook Marketplace, all show many buyers looking for catalytic converters.

“If we can really crack down on the buying side of it, I think that’s where we’re going to make our biggest gains,” Meyer said.

The Bellevue Police Department said that those stolen converters still under investigation are likely going out of state and even out of the country, to be stripped of their precious metals, overseas.

The manager at Dan Fast Muffler and Brake says the shop gets calls from people out of state, looking to buy.

“I get calls here frequently, ‘Hey, we’re in town, we want to buy your catalytic converters,” O’Neill said. “From my understanding they’re buying them up, putting them in shipping containers, taking them across state lines to states that have less stringent rules,” he said.

Recyclers like Alexander’s Metals serve a five-state area. They purchase converters in bulk from auto shops, cut the converters at their facility in Sultan, then ship them to a metal refineries in Montana, Texas, and Tennessee.

“We are really careful who we purchase from,” said Wayne Alexander. He said they do not purchase from the general public to avoid illegally obtained converters.

Brilliant Staging and Design now has a cage installed around the catalytic converters on their truck to prevent another theft.

O’Neill recommends customers purchase a cat security shield or plate online to fit the make and model of your vehicle, then have your local mechanic install it. The parts usually cost between $150 and $350 – so while pricey, it can save you from a major repair.

“What is just so heartbreaking is so many people are going through this and for some people it’s the car they use to get to work every day. For some people it is their business. It’s just mind-blowing how big of an issue this has become,” Nazariya said.