Thieves target catalytic converters

An exhaust pipe cut to remove a catalytic converter. (courtesy Metropolitan Garage)

Theft of catalytic converters from vehicles is on the rise across the country, including in the Fairbanks area. The exhaust system component contains precious metals that have spiked in value, and the units can be sold legally and illegally for as much as a thousand dollars.

Fairbanks based Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Brian Zeisel says catalytic converter theft is nothing new, but local incidents have markedly increased.

“It started spiking here toward the end of this past summer,” Zeisel said. “It’s been over 35 cases, 35 to 40 cases at least, that we’ve seen, and that’s huge.”

Zeisel says vehicles left parked for extended periods of time have been a common target.

“We’ve had dealerships that have had converters stolen from their vehicles, government vehicles, we’ve had a church that had a couple of their vehicles — one of their vans,” Zeisel said. “And a lot of these vehicles, unfortunately that we’re having problems with, is that they’re not noticed until days or even weeks because some of these vehicles have been sitting there for a while. Maybe it’s because of Covid, I don’t know.”

Fairbanks Police detective Andrew Adams says the city has seen a similar spike in catalytic converter thefts, a crime he says can be carried out quickly.

“They come across a vehicle that they think they can get to, I think they’re taking that opportunity,” he said. “Just slide underneath a parked vehicle, generally using a battery-operated saw, they cut the 2 pipes leading into and out of the catalytic converter and perhaps a mounting bolt, and the catalytic converter drops right off. They can be in and out in 2 minutes.”

Adams and Zeisel say thieves can sell catalytic converters to in-state and online Outside recyclers.

“I’ve been told by a dealer that some of these actual converters, because of the type of precious metal that’s in them, you can get upwards of thousand dollars off them. I haven’t seen that since I’ve been doing this, but I’ve seen it upwards of like three hundred dollars,” Zeisel said.

Steve and Rebecca Levy co-own Metropolitan Garage in Fairbanks. They say they’ve had a few vehicles hit in their own shop parking lot and are regularly replacing stolen catalytic converters for customers.

“In the past it would happen occasionally,” Steve Levy said. “Now, it’s an everyday event.”

Meanwhile, with no ID numbers, they are hard to track or recover. And vehicle owners are left with hefty repair bills.

“If you buy an aftermarket catalytic converter that doesn’t work very well or doesn’t last very long, it can be a little over a thousand dollars,” Steve Levy said. “Most of the newer cars have requirements that make them cost closer to four-to-nine thousand dollars.”

The Levys say some insurance covers replacement of stolen catalytic converters, and that the shop has developed some add-on anti-theft solutions.

Other Fairbanks vehicle repair shops are also dealing with catalytic converter thefts. Mike Simard, who runs two local shops, says some vehicles are easy prey.

“Something that’s lifted,” he said. “A lifted vehicle, a van, a truck — anything that’s higher off the ground.”

Simard says low slung hybrids like the Toyota Prius are tougher targets, but their catalytic converters sell for more. He says stamping identification numbers into catalytic converters can help deter theft.

“If you have a row of vehicles, of ten vehicles and you were to crawl under one and it has a VIN number stamped into the side of it, you’re likely to move on to the next one,” he said.

And he also emphasizes basic awareness.

“Keeping an eye on your surroundings, parking in well-lit areas, having cameras.”

Simard says a surveillance camera helped catch a thief stealing a catalytic converter from a vehicle parked at his downtown Fairbanks shop. He points out that like any crime, catalytic converter theft stems in large part from broader societal problems that we can do more to address.

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