Thieves target catalytic converters, license plates in Lawrence

photo by: Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP

A mechanic replaces a worn-out catalytic converter on a vehicle on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, in Salt Lake City. Catalytic converter thefts are spiking nationwide.

Catalytic converters have long been targets for thieves, but thefts have skyrocketed in the past two years, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and it’s a trend that has played out locally as well.

Though specific numbers weren’t available this week, the Lawrence Police Department and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office both expressed concern over the crime.

Catalytic converters, which look like small mufflers mounted underneath the vehicle, filter carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes using rare metals such as platinum, rhodium and palladium. Those metals are what attract thieves, who can remove a converter in just a few minutes with the right tools — and repairing the damage is not cheap.

Douglas County has seen an increase in catalytic converter thefts in the last 18 months, and the trend coincides with the rising prices of the precious metals that are used to build converters, said Deputy Troy Miller of the sheriff’s office.

“The main targets appear to be trucks and SUVs that might be higher off the ground (and therefore easier to access) or diesel vehicles because the converters might garner more money,” Miller said.

Nationally, the Prius is the No. 1 vehicle for catalytic converter thefts, according to multiple reports. As an ultra low-emissions vehicle, the Prius has a catalytic converter that contains more of the coveted rare metals.

But even older, higher-emission cars are targeted by thieves.

The Journal-World recently heard from a reader who said his catalytic converter was “sawed off” his Honda Element when it was parked overnight in a downtown public parking garage. He was able to start the engine, but it made a very loud noise — the first sign of a missing converter, according to auto experts. He said the car next to his also had a converter stolen.

“Someone could trade the stolen converter to a recycler for $250 to $500, and the repair could be $1,000 to $2,000, so even a vehicle owner with more than liability coverage would still need to cover their deductible,” Miller said.

Kansas started a Scrap Metal Reporting System in 2019 that is run by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. The system tracks metals sold to scrap dealers, but it doesn’t help in identifying converters as stolen because the part usually doesn’t have any distinguishing features specific to the type of vehicle it came from.

Rayon Nelson, who works at the 12th and Haskell Recycle Center in Lawrence, said she regularly sees catalytic converters coming into the center. The center buys converters for as low as $10 apiece, and the highest it has paid was $300, but that was rare, Nelson said.

The center uses a third party to determine the value of a converter, and it takes time to get a quote. People who sell items at the center are required to provide identification and sign their names. The office also has cameras to record people who come in, Nelson said.

“The only thing people don’t have to sign for are bags of cans,” Nelson said.

In addition to tracking who sells items in the shop, the center has helped a few people recover their catalytic converters, Nelson said. Victims of theft can bring a police report into the shop and try to identify their property.

Last year, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued an attorney general’s opinion stating that the Kansas Scrap Metal Theft Reduction Act also covers catalytic converters, meaning that a scrap metal dealer who buys a catalytic converter must report it to the KBI database.

Miller, the sheriff’s deputy, said the sheriff’s office was looking into partnering with local auto-related businesses to start etching identifying numbers onto converters to make investigations easier.

“This can help deter thieves and can make the converters easier to track if they are recovered,” Miller said.

Thieves also regularly target auto dealerships and repair shops that have a lot of vehicles outside overnight without security, Miller said.

“The main thing is to park your vehicles inside a garage or secure area, if you can,” Miller said. “If you have to park outside, it’s best to use other burglary-prevention tools like exterior lights or motion sensors and security cameras.”

Lawrence Police Lt. David Ernst said if a vehicle couldn’t be parked in a secure garage, then it should be parked in a well-lit, well-traveled area to deter thieves.

Ernst could not tell the Journal-World how many catalytic converters were reported stolen in Lawrence because police don’t track converter thefts individually apart from general theft reports.

“How thefts of catalytic converters are recorded in our records management system, it is difficult for me to provide data related to recent trends or types of vehicles the catalytic converters are stolen from. I can confirm catalytic converter thefts do occur in Lawrence,” he said.

Another common type of auto-related theft involves license tags and registration stickers, which thieves use to make unregistered vehicles appear legal. In 2020, the Lawrence Police Department reported 160 license plates or sticker thefts and recovered 46 of those. In 2021, 155 plates or stickers were reported stolen, and police recovered 32, Ernst said.

Stolen or lost tags can be replaced for $3, according to the Douglas County Treasurer’s Office. Drivers are asked to file a police report to obtain a case number for records. The owner of the vehicle is required to sign for the new tag or sticker.

Law enforcement asks community members who discover their vehicle has been damaged or their license plate or registration sticker missing to call dispatch at 785-832-7509.


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