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Why There Is Big Money In Stolen Catalytic Converters

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Car thieves have always had sort of a thing for catalytic converters. It's a little part that helps your car pollute less, and it happens to contain precious metals that are valuable on the black market. There's been a huge jump in the number being stolen. Here's Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM in Milwaukee.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Imagine starting your car and discovering that part of its exhaust system has been removed. That's what Milwaukee resident Ben Wilson recently experienced.

BEN WILSON: Yeah, I woke up in the morning and was moving my wife's Honda Element out of the driveway. And when I turned it on, it made an incredibly loud sound.

QUIRMBACH: That's because there was an 18-inch hole between the engine and muffler, where the cylinder-shaped catalytic converter used to be. In what likely took only a few minutes, someone slid under the Honda and sawed off the device. To replace it costs about $2,000, and insurance company payouts are stacking up. In fact, the National Insurance Crime Bureau says there's been more than a tenfold increase in catalytic converter thefts in just the last three years. Last year alone, more than 14,000 were stolen from cars and trucks. That's in part because of soaring prices for some valuable metals inside the converters. The price of rhodium, for instance, has skyrocketed to about $28,000 an ounce. Insurance Crime Bureau's David Glawe says the pandemic has cut production of the metals at overseas mines.

DAVID GLAWE: The laborers in the mine have been reduced. And the supply chain's been disrupted, which has drastically increased the cost of these precious metals to be mined and produced.

QUIRMBACH: This jump in stolen converters has some repair shops improvising antitheft measures.

(SOUNDBITE OF WELDING)

QUIRMBACH: At The Family Mechanic in Milwaukee, Zeb Corona is welding two pieces of iron rebar around a catalytic converter underneath a Toyota Prius. His brother Elijah runs the shop and says to test his design, he's tried to cut through one half-inch thick stick of rebar.

ELIJAH CORONA: And using one of the best saws in the market and some of the best Sawzall blades on the market, it literally took me minutes to chop through half of a stick, and it ruined multiple blades.

QUIRMBACH: Corona charges about $75 for the rebar welding. That's much less than buying a commercially built converter shield or cage. But there's another wrinkle - a black market for stolen converters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

QUIRMBACH: At scrap metal processor AB CatTech in Burlington, Wis., workers are operating two guillotine-like shearing machines that slice open about 2,000 converters that arrive from legitimate suppliers around the country every day. The machine also breaks down the precious metals into what's almost baby powder consistency to be shipped to a refinery. Owner Brad Redmer says if you come here trying to sell catalytic converters, be prepared for some scrutiny.

BRAD REDMER: I'm going to ask you for your driver's license. I'm going to ask you what your business is. And if you can't verify those two right off the bat, then I'm not even going to do business with you. We won't even welcome you in.

QUIRMBACH: Across the country, states already have laws addressing scrap metal thefts, and some legitimate scrappers like Redmer welcome more regulation. Nearly 50 bills have been introduced in about two dozen states, all aimed at discouraging thieves from slipping under your car or truck and making off with this critical part of its exhaust system.

For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.