Phoenix cops find 1,200 catalytic converters as robberies soar

PHOENIX — An Arizona man was facing multiple theft charges on Friday after detectives found more than 1,200 catalytic converters packed into a storage unit, a case that highlights a national rise in thefts of expensive auto parts that play an essential role in reducing vehicle emissions.

The discovery follows a months-long investigation that began with a tip in January that someone was storing stolen catalytic converters in an industrial area near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

“We were very surprised at the amount in there,” the Phoenix police detective said. Adam Popelier said in police video taken Thursday as officers pulled converters out of the jam-packed storage locker.

The 48-year-old man who police say bought and sold the converters has been charged with 40 counts of theft and could face additional charges.

The huge increase in catalytic converter thefts across the country has hit tens of thousands of car and truck owners in the wallet and frustrated police, who are faced with a crime that only takes minutes to commit and is difficult to solve even if they find the theft the parts.

Catalytic converters are not printed at the factory with serial numbers and stolen converters end up on a black market where they are opened for the precious metals they contain.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an insurance industry group that fights insurance fraud and crime, replacing a vehicle can cost a motorist $1,000 to $3,000. According to the police, thieves can get $100 to $150 for each converter.

The insurance group only recorded 3,969 reports of stolen catalytic converters in 2019, more than 17,000 in 2020 and more than 52,000 last year.

Lawmakers across the country have taken notice, introducing legislation to make it harder for criminals to offload their loot. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, 150 bills were introduced this year in 36 states and signed into law in 16 states.

This includes Arizona, where Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill this month that makes possession of a catalytic converter a crime in many cases and adds detailed reporting requirements for scrap metal dealers who buy legitimate second-hand devices. They must mark the item with the serial number of the donor vehicle and keep it for at least a week in its original condition.

Scrappers caught with unregistered or stolen converters face a $500 fine for the first offense, a $2,000 fine for a second, and at least double for each additional time they are caught. Those who own or attempt to sell a used catalytic converter that does not meet the new requirements could face up to six months in jail.

Federal legislation is also in preparation. Indiana Rep. Jim Baird sponsors National Insurance Crime Bureau-backed bill that would require serial numbers on new devices, offer grants for programs to put numbers on cars and trucks existing ones and would facilitate the continuation of the flights.

The insurance group’s chairman and chief executive, David Glawe, called it a crucial step to help provide relief to those directly affected by the thefts.

Insurance often does not cover a car owner’s losses. Someone who only has liability or liability and collision insurance is responsible for the full bill. Even with full coverage, there is a deductible that may be high enough that it is not worth filing a claim.

“Finally, some victims, even covered, may treat the problem as a mechanical problem and pay for themselves and never inform their insurer,” Insurance Crime Bureau spokesman Tully Lehman said Friday.

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