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By AMANDA HENSLEY
“People really need to watch where they’re parking their cars,” said Gary Garriott, owner of Muffler Pro in Carrollton, Ky., warning of the rise in catalytic converter thefts in the county and the state.
Garriott said he has had 20 customers come in for repairs because of stolen converters in the past month. Part of a vehicle’s exhaust system, the catalytic converter takes unburned gases and purifies them before they are emitted into the air.
“It’s really a big filter,” said Ken Egan, service manager at Todd Nelson Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep.
Carroll County Sheriff Ben Smith said there have been six reported converter thefts in the county in the past five to seven weeks. There have been none reported in the past two weeks, he said, because two men suspected of converter thefts have been arrested.
Overall, Carroll County is doing well compared to other counties that are seeing “quite a bit more” of the thefts, Smith said.
But it’s not the converter itself that the thieves are attracted to – its what’s inside. The “guts” of the converter, Garriott said, are made of or coated with precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium.
In early February, platinum reached a record price of $2,252 an ounce. The value dropped to about $1,900 as of Thursday, July 17, according to Kitco.com, a retailer of precious metals. A year ago, platinum was only in the $1,300-per-ounce range.
This means that a thief can take a converter to a junk yard or recycler and be paid anywhere from $50 to $100 for an item that takes only minutes to remove from a car.
“People need to watch their vehicles and don’t park in places where they will be unattended for any length of time at all,” Garriott said.
Don Hensley of Carrollton, who has worked on cars for more than 40 years, agrees, stating that catalytic converters are “probably the easiest car part to steal.”
Gary Harp, parts manager for Herb Kinman Chevrolet, said one can be stolen in just five minutes, “if that,” using a battery-operated saw. They can make a quick $100, but it can cost the owner as much as $2,000 in repairs, he said.
Three weeks ago witnesses at Dow Corning saw people transfering converters from one car to another and called the sheriff’s office with license-plate numbers.
Officers pulled over a Carrollton man who was a scrap buyer and confiscated four converters. The seller also was pulled over, but officials didn’t have enough evidence to charge him at the time. Later, he was caught underneath a car in Kenton County, Smith said, adding that the suspect and his girlfriend, who was posing as the car’s owner, both were arrested and charged.
Locally, a converter was stolen from a car at the Carroll County Health Department on 11th Street; another was stolen from a location on 11th Street; another was stolen at TraderBakers; and three others were reported stolen in Worthville.
If convicted for the crime, a converter thief could be charged with a Class D felony because the converters are worth $300 or more, Smith said.
Lt. Chip Perry, public information officer for Kentucky State Police Post 4, acknowledged that cases like these are hard to solve.
“It takes some time and good investigative work,” Perry said, but added, “usually a thief doesn’t stop until he gets caught. ... It’s almost like an addiction. They just keep stealing until they get caught; they can’t quit.”
People with SUVs should be especially vigilant, Smith said, because the higher off the ground a vehicle sits, the easier it is for a thief to access the converter.
But Garriott says everyone should pay attention. “There’s no vehicle that can’t be cut and stolen from. If they’ve got enough time, there’s not one that’s safe.”
“You can’t prevent it,” Hensley agreed. “It’s just about impossible.”
Hensley said he now has to be careful who he buys from to avoid receiving stolen auto parts. He said he only deals now with junk yards and garages where he knows and trusts people working there.
Garriott said he doesn’t allow anyone to park their vehicle on his lot at night, unless it’s right next to the street, where traffic may deter thieves.
Garriott also warns not to loan your car to others. One elderly customer had loaned her car to her grandson. After he brought it back, it was making noise, so she brought it in. Her grandson said he had hit something in the road. When Garriott informed her that the catalytic converter had been stolen, she got “terribly mad and started making calls.”
In another instance, a theft occurred while a woman had loaned her car to her sister, he said.
Michelle Walker of Fourth Street, Carrollton, said the converter was stolen off of one of her two vehicles while they were parked in the driveway. At first she thought the muffler had fallen off. The repair bill was $200, as no other damage was made to the car.
“They’re good at it,” Walker said of the thieves. “They know exactly what they’re doing.”
Walker did not file a police report, but said she no longer parks her car near the road.
Car dealerships also targeted
Egan at Todd Nelson Chrysler said converters have been stolen from cars on their lot, and also has had customers come in to have their stolen converters replaced.
Egan blames the rise in thefts to a combination of reasons – the top being the “ridiculous price” salvage shops are paying for converters.
“They are creating a supply and demand,” he said.
Egan says that even the price for junked cars has risen. “They’re giving $250 for junk cars; six months ago you would have been lucky to get $50.”
But, Egan also says the problem boils down to an even bigger national issue. “I think its all got to do with the economy,” he said. “When [metal prices] go up, the economy is in bad shape.”
James Baker, co-owner of Bakers Auto Salvage in Carrollton, said he hasn’t seen an increase in catalytic converter sales, but said overall, sales had been increasing over the years with metal values increasing.
As the only licensed junkyard in the county, Baker said thieves likely will go elsewhere to sell stolen goods.
“I’m just a little bitty pod in a great big pea,” Baker said, adding that the items are probably sold to dealers in cities like Louisville or Cincinnati.
Baker said one day last week, he watched as a customer removed the converter from his own car in the parking lot and came in to sell it.
Baker said he told the man that he was damaging his truck, but figured the man may have needed the money for food or for gas to get to work.
“The economy is killing us,” said Harp of Kinman’s. “I’ve lived here for eight years, and this is the first year I’ve had to lock my vehicle.”
“We ain’t seen the worst of it yet,” Baker predicts of the status of the U.S. economy.
Garriott is less forgiving. “I know times are hard and money is tight, but it doesn’t give nobody a reason to steal.”
Sheriff Smith advises that anyone who witnesses suspicious activity near a vehicle to write down the license-plate number and call the Sheriff’s office so they can check it out.
And if one is stolen, Smith said to report it, because that’s the only way for officials to solve the crimes.“We have to have the crime to match the converters to,” Smith said.