Viewpoint: Cat Burglars and the Converter Cartel

Viewpoint: Cat Burglars and the Converter Cartel

How many catalytic converters can a battery-powered reciprocating saw cut from a dealer’s lot before the battery runs out? The answer is 18, according to news reports.

In one night, 18 converters were removed at a Mentor, OH, Mitsubishi dealership. Other dealerships have been hit, with an average of 15 converters cut loose per night. Also, in a period of 15 days, 23 catalytic converters off private vehicles were stolen in Newark County, OH.

It is a small crime wave crossing the country. The thieves’ targets are usually high ground clearance vehicles like vans, SUVs and trucks.

The weapon of choice seems to be the battery-powered reciprocating saw. But, some educated criminals are learning which models can be unbolted in almost complete silence.

Most of the owners of the vehicles do not notice that something is wrong until they start their vehicles. Most people think they “blew out” their exhaust system and take it to a shop only to find out that they have been a victim of a crime.

Fences and Fronts
After a converter is cut off the vehicle, it is typically recycled and not sold in the aftermarket. It may be sold directly to the scrap yard. But, more than likely, it is sold to a “fence” who can move a large number of converters with out raising suspicion.

Different converters have different values. The main factor in the price is the number of “biscuits” or ceramic honeycomb pieces. Some of the dual-biscuit Toyota and Honda converters can go for an estimated $70 at a scrap metal recycler. For a single-biscuit converter, the going price is about $25-$40 depending on the diameter of the casing. Loose materials from early GM bead converters can go for $1.90 per pound.

The ceramic matrix or biscuit containing the precious metals, is removed from the stainless steel casing. Platinum, palladium and rhodium are the three main precious metals that are refined and recycled from the converter.

Platinum is now $1,100 per ounce. Palladium sells for $300 per ounce. On a good day, Rhodium can go for $4,000 per ounce. Also, the prices for these precious metals can fluctuate widely because typically they are mined in African countries where the political environment is not stable.

But, the average converter only contains one to two grams of the metals, a maximum of about 7/100ths of an ounce.

Moving the merchandise is difficult. According to one website, refiners of catalyst require a minimum lot size of 5,000 pounds, and they pay in six to eight weeks after the catalyst has been refined. That is a lot of converters and cars. This is a sign that there is an organized criminal element involved.

Chances are the people actually cutting the converters off the vehicles are only making $10 per converter. They probably will spend the money to support a drug habit. It is the upper levels of “front” and “fences” that are making most of the money as the converter makes its way to a legitimate recycler.

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