Thieves are targeting fleet vehicles parked overnight in secluded parking lots. Their target? Catalytic converters.

The theft of catalytic converters is a growing crime trend happening throughout the country. For instance, on May 30, Comcast discovered seven catalytic converters stolen from work trucks parked outside its office in Gambrills, Md. This wasn’t the first time. Earlier, on July 18, the same Comcast location reported the theft of 18 catalytic converters. On May 28, Adscom reported 16 catalytic converters stolen from new Chevrolet and GMC cargo vans parked behind its building in Glen Burnie, Md.

These crimes are not restricted to just large fleets. Smaller fleets are just as vulnerable. Dreisbach Florists in Cincinnati reported to the police that catalytic converters were sawed off three of its vans. Nor is this a problem restricted to the U.S. The BBC reports an increase in catalytic converter thefts in the U.K.

Precious Metals Inside
Police first began noticing catalytic converter thefts about eight months ago. Thieves aren't interested in the catalytic converters themselves; they're interested in the precious metals inside, which are easily recycled. The average catalytic converter contains one to two grams of three precious metals - platinum, palladium, and rhodium. That equals about 0.07 of an ounce, meaning 14 or 15 converters are needed to equal one ounce of the metals. However, the commodity rates for these metals have skyrocketed in the past two years.

For criminals, catalytic converters are as good as gold. Actually, better. In comparison, gold prices reached $670 per ounce in June 2007. According to online commodities Web site, the price of rhodium has shot up in the past five years from $900 to almost $6,000 per ounce in June. Palladium rose from about $189 per ounce two years ago to a high of $371 in June. Between June 1, 2005 and June 1, 2007, the price of platinum rose 67 percent, from $870 per ounce to $1,295.

A quick perusal of the Internet reveals that hundreds of recyclers across the country are buying catalytic converters for the precious metals. Catalytic converters need to be sent to a recycler that has the equipment to perform the chemical process necessary to extract the metals. Metal recycling companies will pay anywhere from $25 to $150 apiece for catalytic converters. A search of the Web reveals a wide range of catalytic converter buying and selling activity across the United States and overseas. There are Web sites that describe how to collect and sell catalytic converters to the right buyer. One site includes photos of the tools to use, such as electric saws, hydraulic jacks, and portable generators.

High Clearance Vehicles at Greater Risk
The catalytic converters are usually stolen from high-clearance vehicles. Most thefts occur at night. A thief can slip under a vehicle and, with a battery-operated saw and metal-cutting blade, make two quick cuts and remove the catalytic converter. Some vehicles have catalytic converters that are bolted on, which are the easiest to remove. The theft can take as little as five to 10 minutes. With some models, thieves use a reciprocal saw to cut the catalytic converter from the exhaust systems underneath the vehicle. Other models require thieves to use an acetylene torch to remove the catalytic converter. Recovering stolen catalytic converters is virtually impossible since they are not inscribed with serial numbers that can be used to identify them.

Often, catalytic converter theft is by drug addicts. Many of those arrested for stealing catalytic converters are heroin addicts. It’s a quick crime for a drug addict to get cash. There are also more sophisticated thieves who know exactly what they were doing and already have buyers lined up for the stolen catalytic converters. Many are shipped to recycling companies in Poland, Canada, China, and Latvia, where they undergo a carbochlorination process that extracts the precious metals.

Securing Vehicles After Work Hours
Fleets victimized by this crime must spend anywhere from $600 to $1,400 to install a replacement catalytic converter. The theft results in immediate downtime for the vehicle since it is illegal to drive without a catalytic converter. It is also extremely dangerous, since the hot exhaust blowing from sawed-open exhaust pipes could heat the nearby fuel tank to the point of exploding, if driven long enough.

Fleets need to reassess policies on how company vehicles are secured after work hours. It is necessary to alert drivers of this new threat and to garage the vehicle when possible, especially if personal use is allowed. Enlist the participation of employees to secure company vehicles. Let’s not make it easy for the thieves.

Let me know what you think.

Originally posted on Automotive Fleet