Several other Valley law enforcement agencies are trying to keep up with the crime trend.
PHOENIX - It's a specific crime trend sweeping the nation and starts right underneath your car, and the surge is evident here in the Phoenix area over the last two years.
Thieves are targeting catalytic converters, your exhaust emission control device, and police agencies are just trying to keep up with increased reports of theft.
You may never think to look under your car until you're a victim of this type of crime. Once your converter is gone, crooks are already trying to exchange it for cash or drugs.
Looking into how many cases Arizona law enforcement agencies are facing during an officer shortage, reporting showed between the 10 departments, each of them saw spikes in 2021.
Swiping a catalytic converter doesn't take much work. With a power tool like a Sawzall, the theft from start to finish can be done in less than five minutes.
‘… this has become some sort of trend’
It happened to Leland Gebhardt outside his Phoenix home at 4 a.m. "Just shocked to see this car nonchalantly pull up and these two guys fumbling getting out of the car," he said.
Even within a few minutes, the suspects have time to get back in their car before approaching Gebhardt's Honda Element again, finally cutting the converter clean off. The damages cost about $4,700.
Fortunately, Gebhardt's insurance paid for the new converter, costing $3,000. He says he also needed a new muffler because the thieves cut the old one, and the dealership he bought his car from paid $1,200 for the replacement.
For five weeks, Gebhardt couldn't drive his car and invested $500 bucks to get a "cat clamp" installed, now protecting the device by a cable cage.
"It’s really aggravating that this has become some sort of trend and it caused so much damage to all of the victims and I was lucky that my insurance was covering it, but there’s a lot of people who have their vehicles totaled because of this," he said.
'My heart skipped a beat'
The roar of Nick Hyatt's Toyota Tundra can be heard throughout his quiet Goodyear neighborhood. He's yet to replace his catalytic converter which was stolen in February 2022.
"I started it up and of course, it terrified me and my heart skipped a beat because I’m thinking that the truck is exploding," he said.
The catalytic converter contains three precious metals. Platinum, which is currently valued at $1,100 an ounce. Palladium, worth nearly $3,000 per ounce. Rhodium, which has recently been valued as high as $22,000 per ounce.
"These are all opportunities for these people to go and just basically completely violate you and cut these things out and make your life very hard for the foreseeable future," Hyatt said.
This, of course, drives demand, as there are victims like Hyatt left scrambling for a new converter.
"I can tell you what, the quote was it was just shy of $5,000," Hyatt said.
‘I had to borrow some cars from friends, from family …’
"Someone had snapped my catalytic converter from underneath there, stole it right out from the parking lot," Rick van Neck said.
He didn't expect his cat converter to be stolen overnight after he brought it into a shop in Mesa for a routine oil change.
"The way that it sounded and the speed it was going at it would have been impossible for me to go to work, so I had to borrow some cars from friends, from family, take this to a mechanic, find the part, pay the money, all sorts of hassle and hopefully get it done in time, so it wouldn’t cost me my job or more money," van Neck said.
What's worse than the sound your car makes without the converter, is the fact that your car can't take emissions produced by your engine and convert the toxic gasses into safe gasses without the converter.
Simply put, it's bad for the environment. But, crooks just don't seem to care.
‘These cases are a felony, they are not a misdemeanor’
"These criminals are going out stealing catalytic converters in people's front yards, parking garages, secured lots, any time of the day, night or broad daylight," said Phoenix Police Det. Adam Popelier.
The stolen goods hit the black market before ending up at the scrapyard. "One of the other things is that we have noticed a lot of sales on the streets and changing hands either for money or for other tangible items that somebody may want," Popelier explained.
How much can a converter pay out?
"We’ve seen a wide range in the last couple years. It did go up to $800 to $1,000 dollars for one catalytic converter and that’s directly to the thief that stole it. Currently, it looks like the market is anywhere from $150 to $300 per catalytic converter," Popelier said.
He handles nearly all the stolen converter cases in Phoenix. His lieutenant, Wayne Dillon, says the Property Crimes Bureau at the Phoenix Police Department is doing its best.
"We’ve seen such an uptick in the last two and a half to three years that it’s been staggering for all of my staff and all of the departments around the Valley." Dillon said.
In 2020, Phoenix Police took 715 cases of reported catalytic converter thefts, up from 72 in 2019. In 2021, a boom of over 4,700 cases. Through February 2022, Phoenix Police have taken 690 reports – with some cases possibly including multiple stolen converters.
Map showing the number of catalytic converter theft reports in the Phoenix area so far in 2022. The numbers represent reports, and multiple catalytic converters could have been stolen in any case. Figures from Tempe include attempts and successful thefts, while figures from Glendale are for metal theft cases. Officials there note that 90 to 95 percent of them are catalytic converter-related. Figures from Mesa are not available.
Meanwhile, the department is about 400 officers short and some detectives are being moved to patrol in June.
"While we’d like to say that’s not going to affect services, realistically, we have to understand that when you remove detectives from bureaus and add them to patrol, that adds cases to other detectives. So, logically it may take more time to get through cases for detectives," explained Sgt. Ann Justus with Phoenix Police.
Over in Glendale, Sgt. Randy Stewart says the police department tracks and groups all metal thefts together, not differentiating the types. In 2020, it saw 44 thefts, 2021 saw 479 thefts and so far in 2022, the department's seen 112 thefts – Glendale PD believes converter thefts make up about 90%-95% of those numbers.
In Mesa, police saw a climb of 814%, in stolen converter cases in 2021 with 631 reports. Chandler Police reported a little more than 400 cases, compared to only 22 in 2020, and already 117 cases this year through February.
Gilbert Police saw a 975% spike over the last two years. Tempe, Peoria, Goodyear, Surprise and Buckeye have also witnessed significant increases when it comes to catalytic converter thefts.
Despite the approaching reallocation of detectives to patrols, Lt. Dillon says his team will stay aggressive in holding thieves accountable.
"The biggest part of that is having our caseload and having our investigators continue to send these cases up for prosecution and working with our partners at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to ensure that all of these cases are charged appropriately because these cases are a felony, they are not a misdemeanor," Dillon said.
How are these cases handled?
How these cases are ultimately charged falls on the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
Deputy county attorney, Courtney Sullivan, says prosecutors still have to prove what police accuse a suspect of doing actually happened.
"I need to be able to have a reasonable likelihood of conviction that this person committed this offense," she explained. That means, linking the suspect or suspects to the alleged felony burglary or theft, being able to clearly identify them with security video or images, gathering statements from victims and witnesses to make a legitimate case.
"We need to be able to tie the person to the actual act removing that catalytic converter, whether it's through the surveillance video, whether it's through forensics, whether it's through statements, whether it's through other means to get to that person taking that catalytic converter off of that car," she said.
Tips to keep your catalytic converter safe
Farmers.com provides ways to keep your device safe:
- Park in a well-lit area
- Get your license plate number etched onto your catalytic converter
- Consider buying an anti-theft device like a cat-clamp to deter thieves
Editor's Note: We have updated this story to reflect Phoenix PD's updated statistics on reported cases of stolen catalytic converter thefts in 2020 as 715. The 72 cases originally reported to PPD were in 2019.
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