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Catalytic converter thefts have surged during the pandemic. Police are fighting back.

Takoma Park police in Maryland have teamed up with a local mechanic to etch tag numbers on catalytic converters to deter thieves seeking the car parts for their precious metals

RS Automotive is responding to a growing number catalytic converter thefts in the Washington region. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Michael McCarthy was headed to his weekly walk in Sligo Avenue Neighborhood Park one August morning when he noticed two rocks at the base of his car’s rear tires.

He remembers feeling uneasy. Something wasn’t right.

“When I got in my car and started it, it sounded like a 747 aircraft without the windows. It was this loud, offensive noise, and I turned the engine off right away,” McCarthy said. “I didn’t know what to think, but something was wrong.”

McCarthy, 77, soon discovered that his catalytic converter had been stolen from his 2007 Toyota Prius.

“I really felt victimized,” said McCarthy, a Takoma Park resident. “Somebody had been out in front of my house at nighttime, propped my car up and absconded with my catalytic converter.”

McCarthy became one of a growing number of car owners regionally and nationwide who have lost their catalytic converters, an integral part of a vehicle’s exhaust system that police say thieves are targeting for its precious metals. Neighborhood message boards in the District, and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties have been filled with residents complaining of thefts or police providing warnings about the jump in the crime. In Ohio, lawmakers introduced a bill to ban the sale of catalytic converters without proof of ownership. And a city in Arizona launched an undercover initiative called “Operation Heavy Metal” to combat the thefts, which jumped from two cases in 2018 to more than 400 as of September.

To combat the problem in Takoma Park, police have teamed up with a local mechanic who will paint tag numbers on catalytic converters that police will log in a database that can track the owners if the converters are stolen.

“Police stations and communities across the whole country have been dealing with this issue, so we decided to jump aboard,” said Takoma Park police spokeswoman Cathy Plevy.

The parts — sought after for the platinum, rhodium, palladium and other metals inside — can be sold for $150 to $200 per piece at junk yards, police say. However, it can cost thousands to replace a stolen catalytic converter.

In March, the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) said a study showed that 108 catalytic converter thefts occurred each month on average nationwide in 2018, jumping to an average of more than 1,200 per month in 2020.

“We have seen a significant increase during the pandemic. It’s an opportunistic crime. As the value of the precious metals contained within the catalytic converters continues to increase, so do the number of thefts of these devices,” David Glawe, NICB president and chief executive, said in a statement. “There is a clear connection between times of crisis, limited resources, and disruption of the supply chain that drives investors towards these precious metals.”

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Aside from the value of the metals found in catalytic converters, the coronavirus pandemic has affected the number of thefts of these parts. The NICB said closed outreach centers, public safety resource limitations and unemployment contributed to the uptick.

McCarthy’s insurance covered his repairs. However, this is not the case for every victim, especially for those who have only liability coverage.

According to the NICB, the primary targets of catalytic converter thefts are bigger vehicles such as large pickups and delivery vehicles. These vehicles have higher clearance, which makes their catalytic converters easier to access.

Toyota Priuses are also prone to thefts because they contain two catalytic converters and are hybrid vehicles, law enforcement officials and experts say. The converters stolen from Priuses tend to see less corrosion, which makes them more valuable to thieves.

In Montgomery County, where Takoma Park is located, police data shows catalytic converter thefts largely involve Priuses. There were 203 catalytic converter thefts reported from January to June of 2021 in the county, Montgomery police said. That number is a significant increase compared with the 37 reports during the same time in period in 2020.

In 2020, Takoma Park recorded 16 catalytic converter thefts, according to police. This year, as of September, 17 thefts have occurred, all of them from Toyota Priuses.

On Friday, RS Automotive on Carroll Avenue began providing free etching and painting of catalytic converters for the launch of Takoma Park police’s “Etch & Catch” program.

The department hopes the combination of license plate numbers etched on converters; a sticker that reads, “This vehicle’s catalytic converter has been etched by the Takoma Park Police Dept.”; and bright-white paint sprayed around the license number will deter thieves from targeting vehicles in the area.

If that doesn’t work, then they hope etchings and paint will stop scrapyard operators from accepting stolen converters.

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When Plevy first approached RS Automotive with the idea for the “Etch & Catch” program, there were three cars waiting to have their stolen converters replaced.

“I ended up reaching out to an officer out in California, which did one of the pilot programs, and he walked me through how to get it up and running in Takoma Park to help our community,” she said.

The owner of RS Automotive, Depeswar Doley, had witnessed several of his regular customers fall victim to catalytic converter thefts. Takoma Park police contacted him to help, and he agreed with no hesitation.

“I wasn’t happy with the amount of cat converters being stolen. This is not a good way to get money,” Doley said.

Takoma Park police and other departments have suggested several ways to prevent catalytic converter thefts, including: parking in a secure garage or well-lit area with surveillance cameras, installing motion-sensitive lighting to illuminate driveways and anti-theft devices.

“It’s a crime of opportunity. It takes three to four minutes to take someone’s catalytic converter,” Plevy said. “Right now, with catalytic converters, there’s no serial numbers, there’s nothing to trace them everywhere back to anyone. So, with us etching someone’s tag number on there, we’re now creating a database where we can figure out who these catalytic converters belong to if they are stolen.”