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Auto part crime is on the rise nationwide. Here's how you can protect yourself


Stealing catalytic converters is big business, like, half-a-billion-dollar big. And that's just for one crime ring. Across the U.S., catalytic converters, which help clean your car's exhaust fumes, are being stolen at record rates. Last week, the Department of Justice announced the arrest of 21 people in connection with a nationwide scheme that allegedly pulled in $545 million from the stolen parts. Here to talk more about all this and how you can protect your own car is NPR's Becky Sullivan. Welcome.


RASCOE: So let's hear more about this federal bust.

SULLIVAN: So basically, authorities allege that it was a pretty thorough vertical chain of these stolen parts. The DOJ says that there were local thieves on the ground, stealing catalytic converters, who were then turning around and selling them to middlemen dealers who were in the Sacramento and Tulsa areas. And then these middlemen were allegedly shipping the converters to a used auto parts dealer in New Jersey who the DOJ says knew that they were stolen. And then the guys in New Jersey would then do what's called decanning the catalytic converters, which basically means extracting the precious metal powders inside that make them so valuable. And then prosecutors say they turned around and sold those metals to a refinery and made $545 million doing so.

RASCOE: Wow. So, I mean, how big is this problem nationwide? Because even on our staff, we have someone who has had their catalytic converter stolen three times, like, in the last, like, months.

SULLIVAN: It is a huge problem. I mean, I know of several other people who've had theirs stolen this year. And nationally, the stats are pretty crazy. Catalytic converter theft - I mean, it's just taken off dramatically over these last couple years. And, you know, it all comes down to the fact that they're just kind of easy to steal. They're on the bottom of your car. They're right on the outside. So I talked about this with Todd Foreman. He's a former police chief who's now at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. And he said that, basically, any public parking spot for your car is a risk.

TODD FOREMAN: Anywhere cars sit a long time without people starting them or moving them. Hospitals - it's happening because people go to the hospital, and they need to park and visit. Or they're in the hospital for a long period of time, and their car sits there. The newest trend is larger vehicles because they're easier to get under and quicker to cut off and get away from.

RASCOE: So what can car owners do to protect themselves?

SULLIVAN: You know, at the end of the day, I think it's tough to 100% guarantee that it won't get stolen. But there are some steps that you can take as a car owner. You should know that you're more at risk, first off, if you have a car with greater clearance off the ground, like an SUV or a pickup truck because thieves don't have to use a jack to get your car high enough to steal the converter.

But basically, what you're going to want to do is take some steps to deter a thief. And one common recommendation I heard is to paint your catalytic converter with high-visibility, heat-resistant paint or to get all or part of your vehicle identification number etched into the metal. And basically, even if those things don't physically keep a thief from taking your converter, it would be an indication to any potential buyer that it has been stolen. So it makes it harder to sell. You can also buy alarms that are triggered by the vibrations of a saw. Or you could get a mechanic to weld on, like, a metal shield or some rebar around the converter. At the end of the day, though, a determined thief is going to be able to get through anything like that. So the best bet is to keep your car in a locked garage if you can. And if you don't have access to that, somewhere that is well-lit and has people around.

RASCOE: So how will you know if your catalytic converter is stolen, and what should you do?

SULLIVAN: I think you'll know. Without a catalytic converter, your car will be a lot louder. It'll pollute a lot more. And so while it might still run OK, technically speaking, you should take it to a mechanic because, you know, a thief who has gotten under there with a saw on your car might have damaged some other parts that are close to the converter, like your alternator or your fuel line. So get it checked out.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Becky Sullivan. Thanks so much.

SULLIVAN: Of course. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.

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