New law seeks to curb theft of catalytic converters

Tennessee and nation have surge in thefts for precious metals

By: - July 16, 2021 5:01 am
Scrap autos. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

Scrap autos. (Photo by Alexander Koerner/Getty Images)

John Baldwin often exercised on Beaman Park Trail until one afternoon, when after a 30-minute hike and driving home, he realized there was something wrong with his Toyota Tacoma.

“It was this horrible sound that he had never heard before,” said Kim Baldwin, his wife. 

After a consequent call to a tow service, the driver promptly slid under the vehicle and found the cause of the problem. 

“Yep, your catalytic converter is gone,” said the tow truck driver, noting that this was not the first such call he had received recently.

Nationwide, catalytic converter thefts are on the rise, and Tennessee is no exception. Throughout the state, police departments tracking catalytic converter thefts found that there has been a significant increase this year in comparison to previous years. 

In Knoxville, police officials reported that from Jan. 1 to March 7, there were 47 reports of catalytic converter thefts. That same period in 2020, there had only been seven reported cases. 

In Chattanooga, officials reported that from Jan. 1 to June 27, there were 458 cases of catalytic converters stolen, while in 2020 there were 92 cases. 

Catalytic converters are exhaust emission devices used to reduce pollutants created by a vehicle’s internal combustion engine, but in the last few months, thieves found that stealing these devices was a lucrative business because of the precious metals they contain. 

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, as of December 2020, rhodium was valued at $14,500 per ounce, palladium at $2,336 per ounce, and platinum at $1,061 per ounce. Typically, scrap metal dealers will pay $50 to $250 per catalytic converter.

And they’re relatively easy to steal, said Scott Erland, spokesperson for the Knoxville Police Department.

“More or less, in a lot of cars they’re taken pretty quickly. You have to go under a car to do it obviously, but if you know what you’re doing, you get under there and get away really quickly,” he said. 

Thieves tend to target cars parked in poorly lit, isolated areas. According to Elisa Myzal, spokesperson for the Chattanooga Police Department, reports came from parking lots, streets and businesses with a large number of parked cars, such as rental car lots and churches.

And while the thefts are quick and easy, the victims are left with expensive damages. 

Although total costs depend on the car and its condition, repairs cost anywhere from $700 to $1,000, said Pat Williams, adding that as an employee at Barton’s Car Care, a repair shop in Memphis, he’d fixed 50 cars with stolen catalytic converters in the last few months. 

More or less, in a lot of cars they're taken pretty quickly. You have to go under a car to do it obviously, but if you know what you're doing, you get under there and get away really quickly.

– Scott Erland, Knoxville Police Department

A new state consumer protection law aims at curbing the rising number of thefts by making purchases of scrap metal more difficult. As of July 1, any person engaged in the business of buying or selling scrap metal — including catalytic converters — are required to be registered as scrap metal dealers and must notify their local chief of police and sheriff. By registering with the police, scrap metal dealers become a part of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance’s Scrap Metal Registration Program, which includes providing thumbprints. 

Despite this, some scrap metal dealers remain unconvinced that these measures are enough to stop the thefts. 

Billy Hogan, owner of John’s Recycling in Chattanooga, said that between his shop and numerous others, they had evidence of a man who allegedly stole 21 catalytic converters.

“We caught it on film, where he sold it, with his ID and everything, and the police still will not do anything about it,” he said. 

At the time of his interview with Lookout reporters, he had purchased three vehicles that day, all with missing catalytic converters. 

“At this point the thieves know the police won’t do anything about it,” he added. 

As for the Baldwin family, their truck spent five weeks in the mechanic shop since the thieves had caused thousands of dollars in damages.

“In addition to stealing the catalytic converter, they also incidentally broke the whole computer system and the frame,” said Kim Baldwin. 

Thankfully, the Baldwins only had to pay the deductible through their insurance, although insurance companies only cover thefts depending on the victim’s policy. 

The irony is that the situation could have been much worse, said Baldwin, because the Toyota Tacoma had several catalytic converters, and the thieves had only found one. 

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.