The black market behind North Carolina’s soaring catalytic converter thefts – The Fayetteville Observer
A car converter crime wave hit the state in 2021. Will this year be different?
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2021 was the year of the catalytic converter theft.
Across North Carolina, thousands turned on their cars and heard an unexpected loud rumble, the tell-tale noise that their catalytic converters had been swiped.
Hanging underneath the vehicle, these cylindrical parts reduce pollutants as they move from the engine toward the tailpipe. But their accessibility and composition — which includes aluminum and precious metals like palladium and rhodium — make them targets for robbers, who need only a few minutes to cut the converters clean off.
From 2019 to 2020, catalytic converter thefts more than tripled in the United States according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), an increase driven by the soaring price of rare metals. And in 2021, as the price of metals climbed even higher, so did thefts throughout North Carolina.
The Fayetteville Police Department saw converter thefts jump from 87 in 2020 to more than 225. In Gastonia, thefts rose from 42 to more than 100, and in the Western North Carolina city of Hendersonville, the number of stolen catalytic converters swelled from 4 to nearly 70.
“Oh my god, I saw a ton (of cars) without them,” said John Tirone, the manager of the Organic Mechanic in Asheville.
Toyota Priuses and Honda Elements are common victims, Tirone explained, because hybrid converters tend to contain more valuable metals while the Element, a crossover SUV, sits higher off the ground.
The Organic Mechanic will install shields over converters to block robbers while other shops have begun etching license plate or vehicle identification numbers (VIN) into the “cat” converters to make them easier to track.
But the stolen parts can quickly become untraceable on the converter black market.
Rogue buyers and online marketplaces
Secondary metal recyclers typically pay between $50 to $250 for converters according to the NICB, and many obtain these auto parts legally from mechanic shops.
Under a 2012 state law, North Carolina recyclers and scrap yards must maintain meticulous records of their motor vehicle part purchases, including the VINs, the name and address of the sellers, photos of the seller with the auto parts, the sellers’ fingerprints, and a photocopy of the sellers’ license.
The License and Theft Bureau, part of the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, conducts “periodic audits” to ensure recyclers are complying with the law said Marty Homan, a spokesperson for the state DMV.
Local police and sheriff’s departments conduct their own audits and permit secondary metal recyclers. But the swelling crime stats demonstrate the illegal converter trade isn’t easy to shut down.
“It is common for converters to be stolen in one location and sold elsewhere,” said Captain Mike Burns of Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, which had received 129 reports of stolen converters in 2021 (as of Dec. 17), compared to only 14 in all of 2019.