Thieves target catalytic converters across the Washington area

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thieves throughout the Washington area have been swiping catalytic converters from parked cars, booty that police say can be traded for cash at a scrap yard.

Fairfax County police recently posted an alert to residents after an uptick in the number of thefts in the county. Similar thefts have occurred over the past six months in other District suburbs, including the city of Alexandria and Prince William, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Authorities said catalytic converters are an attractive target because they contain trace amounts of precious metals, including platinum and palladium.

Thieves use saws to remove the part, which is on a vehicle's underside as part of the exhaust system, and sell it to a scrap yard or recycling center, authorities said. The cost to the car owner, who turns the ignition on only to hear a telltale roar indicating the problem, can run higher than $1,000.

Anthony Teolis of Fairfax said it sounded like a "demolition derby" when he tried to start his car one recent evening after returning to a parking lot at the Vienna/Fairfax-GMU Metro station.

Teolis, who recounted his experience in a letter to The Washington Post, said he immediately suspected the catalytic converter had been stolen. He was right. Repairs cost about $1,000.

Police said thieves have struck in commuter lots, where cars tend to sit for hours, and in neighborhoods. Vans and sport-utility vehicles, with a high level of clearance that makes it easier for criminals to scoot under, often are targeted.

Montgomery police said sometime late Dec. 7 or early the next day, catalytic converters were stolen from two vehicles parked in the 15900 block of Somerville Drive in the Rockville area. On Dec. 8, the part was swiped from a Toyota Tacoma parked off Rockville Pike. Fairfax City police said a catalytic converter was stolen from a vehicle parked on Pickett Road on Jan. 5.

Montgomery police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said theft of the car part is a tough crime to deter. She encouraged drivers to park in a garage if they have one, or to park in well-lighted areas.

"The most common crime in Montgomery County is theft from vehicles, and we can tell people not to leave their belongings inside or to lock their cars, but we can't give that advice for a catalytic converter theft," Baur said.

Fairfax County police said the thefts there have occurred during the day and at night, mostly during the workweek. Toyotas have been targeted, but other cars are hit as well, they said.

Fairfax police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said police ask residents to alert authorities if they see someone acting strangely around parked cars.

"There aren't a lot of places in Fairfax County where there aren't people," Caldwell said. "If you see something suspicious, don't take action, but give police a call."

Cpl. Mike Rodriguez, a Prince George's police spokesman, said that he's not aware of a recent increase in the thefts but that the car parts have been targeted in the past. A few years ago, he said, thieves stole them from several vehicles in a U-Haul lot.

"We've had the problem before, and I'm sure it's happening now and then," Rodriguez said.

The problem isn't unique to the Washington area. After a rash of thefts in California, legislators passed a law requiring that recyclers document all catalytic converter purchases. And a Michigan law that went into effect last year toughened the punishment for theft of a catalytic converter from a misdemeanor to a felony.

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