Catalyst thefts hit low-income car owners harder

OGDEN, Utah (AP) – Utah lawmakers are considering cracking down on catalytic converter theft in which criminals saw car emission control devices and sold the precious metals found in them to a booming global black market.

Rep. Ryan Wilcox, a Republican representing House District 7, which covers North Ogden, Pleasant View and part of Ogden, is sponsoring a bill to create a statewide database on catalytic converters, the Standard Examiner reported.

“We want to force the (illegal) sales from the legitimate areas to block the legitimate ways to dispose of them,” said Wilcox. The usual correct route is through metal recycling yards.

“The people they steal are usually drug addicts,” said Candace Daly, a recycling industry representative in Utah, during a hearing on the bill on Wednesday afternoon at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City before the Interim Law Enforcement and Justice Committee.

Daly said the common price per ounce for rhodium this week was $ 9,950. Palladium is worth $ 1,967 an ounce and platinum is $ 928, she said, listing three metals commonly found in catalysts.

Thieves may try to sell stolen converters to recyclers and sometimes succeed due to the lack of tracking and enforcement, which requires a database, said Chris Walden, an oversight specialist with the Utah Attorney General.

The AG office carried out Operation Urban Mining in April and May, during which covert sales and purchases of converters were made. They issued a warrant to a warehouse in Davis County and found 124 stolen converters and five bags of loose material from the converters. Agents arrested three people.

Wilcox said in an interview that the investigation uncovered a converter theft ring operated from Eastern Europe and the materials were shipped to Malaysia. “They used people who are already criminals here and paid them for converters,” he said.

One of the worst aspects of the trend is that converter thefts often target vehicles parked on streets, driveways, or apartment parking lots. “It’s just a real tragedy how much money it costs each family to do this,” said Wilcox. “Most people in my neighborhood don’t have garages.”

The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates the average cost of replacing the catalytic converter at $ 1,800.

Data provided by the AG’s office shows that converter thefts have skyrocketed in Utah, rising from 110 in 2018 to 654 in 2020 and 494 in the first five months of this year.

The Ogden Police Department and Weber County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to inquiries about local converter theft.

In addition to setting up a database, Wilcox’s bill would restrict converters from being sold to scrap dealers, auto breakers, and vehicle owners.

It would also be suspected that a converter would be stolen if information is not collected at the time of purchase, or if the same person tries to sell more than one converter per week.

Daly said she worked on a crackdown law for metal theft in 2007 with Ogden Sen. Jon Greiner, who was also the police chief. That move set up a system whereby police authorities would email suspects information to recyclers, who would then keep an eye out and report it to the police if necessary.

But due to employee turnover and other reasons, she said, “The system has fallen apart and it no longer works the way it was.”

She called on the legislature to undertake a “team effort” and not just place the burden of the new program on the recyclers. The focus on property crime enforcement has declined since 2007, she said.

“The thieves are not arrested and jailed, there are not enough drug treatment facilities and law enforcement agencies need more officers,” she said. “They are underpaid and overworked and stopping them is not a particularly high priority.”

Senator Karen Mayne, a Salt Lake County Democrat who will support the Senate bill, said anyone who parks a car in public is at risk. “My neighbor’s two daughters went to a concert and when they went back out the cars didn’t have these ‘cats,'” Mayne said.

To avoid converter theft, vehicle owners can install anti-theft devices and park in locked garages or well-lit areas, according to research firm BeenVerified. In public parking lots or garages, owners should park near entrances or in locations with high pedestrian traffic.

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