Recent thefts bring to light dangers for vehicle owners

Kristin Hohman
Staff Writer

Alex Portik, a fire science major at Lorain County Community College, returned to his locked Pontiac Grand Am after class on Feb. 23 and discovered something amiss.

“I came back from class and that’s when I noticed [my catalytic converter] was stolen,” Portik said. His wasn’t the only one, either.

As part of a vehicle’s exhaust system, catalytic converters are located underneath its outer  structure. They reduce dangerous emissions such as nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide. As a result, the gases are converted into water vapor and other less detrimental gases. The equipment has been an auto-industry standard since the 1970’s.

“A catalytic converter [is] placed between the combustion engine and the muffler on a car [and] acts to decrease vehicle emissions,” said LCCC Assistant Professor of Chemistry Dr. Regan Silvestri. “In terms of chemistry, a ‘catalyst’ is a substance that promotes an otherwise unfavorable chemical reaction.”

Other than Portik’s Grand Am, two Chevy Cavaliers also had their converters stolen from, mere minutes apart. The first theft occurred in the southwestern corner of campus in Lot 3, while the other two took place on the northern edge of campus in Lot 8.

Thieves take pieces of catalytic converters to scrap yards, according to Kenneth Collins, manager of LCCC Campus Security. “[Converters] are made of metal components, which makes them valued,” he said.

Fabricated of small amounts of platinum, palladium, and rhodium (used to speed chemical reactions and help clean emissions at  high temperatures), catalytic converters are already valuable. With today’s economy’s recent hike in precious metal pricing, that value has only accelerated.

“The catalysts are typically small quantities of precious metals … on a high surface area carrier such as silica or alumina,” said Silvestri. “The precious metals are quite valuable, but not easily extracted from the silica or alumina carrier.”

Vehicles like SUVs and trucks, with higher ground clearance, are more prone to thefts of their converters. This higher level allows thieves to slide under a vehicle with ease and gain access to the sought-after device.

Thieves remove the catalytic converter by slipping underneath a vehicle’s carriage and using battery-powered reciprocating saws and blowtorches. The more experienced thieves can remove a converter in mere minutes. Since there are no obvious signs of a break-in, car owners rarely notice that something is wrong until they start the ignition. The sound is usually accompanied by a loud roar – similar to that of a missing muffler.

On campus, Portik said the suspect behind the thefts used a car jack to steal his converter.

Because there is no Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) engraved onto converters, they are difficult to trace once stolen. In today’s market, scrap metal recycling centers pay top dollar for used catalytic converters. Payouts can range anywhere from $20 to $200, according to Scrap metal recyclers typically draw out the metals from converters and resell them for as much as $6,000, depending on the types of metal used.

Across the state of Ohio, just over half of the private auto insurance market noted an increase in thefts over the last 24 months, according to the Ohio Insurance Institute. Typically, most insurance companies file these theft claims under vandalism or general theft categories. Because of this generalization, companies are unable to track the catalytic converter thefts specifically.

While converter theft statistics are not tracked nationally, car theft crimes in general have risen in tandem with rising metal prices. States such as Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and Texas have seen the most converter thefts occur.

Many insurance companies cover catalytic converter theft and related repairs under “other-than-collision” or comprehensive coverage plans. For most insurance plans, this is optional coverage. Out-of-pocket expenses can range from $200 for universal replacements up to $1,000. If a vehicle’s exhaust line was damaged during removal, repairs could cost up to thousands of dollars.

To avoid having a converter stolen, Portik suggested parking next to other cars.

“Park in a row so no one can come up to your car,” he said.

LCCC’s security is staying up to date on the recent criminal activity.

“[LCCC Campus Security] has stepped up mobile patrols,” Collins said. The prime vehicle in LCCC’s suspected burglaries is a maroon Honda Civic, he said.

Unfortunately, there are not many ways to deter thieves from stealing converters. However, there are some precautions that can be taken. One includes having the VIN or license plate number of the vehicle etched onto the catalytic converter, so that if the need arises, the piece is more easily traceable. Since converter theft is more common in large, long-term parking lots and parking garages, parking as close as possible to a building’s entrance or road access is highly advisable, the Nationwide Insurance website reported.

“[Campus security] was a huge help,” Portik said. “They showed me the video [of the crime] and answered all of my questions, then suggested I file a report with the Elyria Police Department.”

Parking in well-lit areas free of any bushes or trees (where thieves can easily hide) is also ideal. Vehicle security systems that trigger at the slightest motion can discourage theft as well as having a converter welded to the frame of the vehicle by a mechanic. “These were not cars that were parked all by themselves,” said Collins. “These occurred in parking lots mixed in with other cars.”

Collins suggested that if students on campus see any suspicious activity, they need to notify security.

“Keep an eye out,” he said.