Updated December 7, 2020 - 1:11 pm
When a vehicle making a loud rumbling noise pulls into the parking lot of Red Rock Repair in northwest Las Vegas these days, the owners of the auto shop instantly have an inkling of what the problem is.
It’s likely not the muffler, they said. Instead, the cause is often a stolen catalytic converter.
“I would say over the last four months there has been a definite spike in catalytic converter thefts,” said Sean McGuigan, who owns Red Rock Repair on West Charleston Boulevard with his wife, Danielle Vila. “Basically they are being taken in the middle of the night, from the cars that (thieves) can access, high-tech sport utilities, then they are resold on the scrap market.”
Las Vegas Valley police departments say thieves are cutting the devices from the vehicles, then reselling them either on the black market or at scrap yards. The converters are installed on vehicles to decrease carbon monoxide emissions, but people steal them because they contain valuable, in-demand metals: rhodium and palladium.
At exhaust parts wholesaler Supreme Automotive Warehouse on Highland Drive in central Las Vegas, General Manager Chad Sims said he, too, believes thefts of catalytic converters are on the rise in Las Vegas.
“I get a couple of calls every day about it,” Sims said. “Every day. Just a mechanic will call and say, ‘I got such-and-such a vehicle. Converter was stolen last night.’”
Sims said he received a call recently from a business that had multiple catalytic converters stolen from its delivery vehicles in a single night.
“I don’t get how they are getting away with it, but it is happening,” he said. “Now it has moved into little rural towns in Southern Utah — St. George, Cedar City. It is something big.”
Statistics, however, are hard to come by when it comes to such thefts. Las Vegas police said they usually categorize the crime as an attempted larceny, and they don’t keep track of how many catalytic converters fall under that broader category.
Officer Aden OcampoGomez said catalytic converter theft is a sporadic crime that has persisted for years. He encouraged anyone who has been victimized to call police and report it.
Tully Lehman, public affairs manager for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, said such thefts are a concern across the nation, but statistics are elusive because many victims don’t report them — not even to their insurance companies.
“The reasons are two-fold,” Lehman said in an email. “First, the cost to replace a stolen catalytic converter can range from a few hundred dollars up to $2K to $3K. If, for example, the cost to replace your catalytic converter after a theft is $1,000, you may decide to not file a claim if your deductible is $1,000. Even a lower deductible, say $500, you still may decide to not file a claim.”
According to Lehman, victims who opt not to have comprehensive insurance coverage and only carry liability insurance get no coverage for the thefts.
“As a result, the data obtained by insurers is underreported,” Lehman wrote.
In North Las Vegas, officer Alexander Cuevas described the theft of catalytic converters as uncommon. In an email, he said the city has had “21 total incidents involving thefts of catalytic converters” since January, with one of those crimes categorized as an attempted theft.
“NLVPD has not seen any spike or spree in catalytic converter theft,” Cuevas wrote.
Henderson Police Department officer Alan Olvera said police are investigating “open and active cases” of catalytic converter thefts.
Each law enforcement agency said many of the thefts are preventable, and that video surveillance at homes and businesses can help police catch the thieves.
“If things are more difficult to steal then you are less likely to fall victim,” Cuevas wrote in his email. “To be able to steal a catalytic converter, thieves need to be able to slide under the vehicle and use cutting tools. A person should park their car close to fences, walls or curbs that will make theft much more difficult.
“When parking, it should always be in a well-lit area. Get a garage or auto body shop to etch a personal or unique serial number to help with identification if it (the converter) is stolen. A garage can also weld bolts shut. Cameras can be a huge help as a deterrent and even identifying a thief. Lastly, people should use alarm systems on their vehicles.”
McGuigan said an acquaintance of his in the auto business told him about a Las Vegas-based charity that had 12 catalytic converters stolen from its vehicle fleet in a single weekend.
“It will come in spurts,” McGuigan said. “There have been weeks where there’s been four in a week. The car, it sounds like it has no muffler anymore. There will be weeks when we will have a couple, the neighboring shops will have a couple.”
He said the Toyota Prius is commonly targeted, as are high-end pickup trucks. Sims said certain models of Ford trucks also are targets.
Sims said the volume of orders he gets for replacement catalytic converters rises and falls with the price of rhodium, “which is the most precious metal in the converter itself.”
The higher the price of the rare metal, the more orders he gets, he said, and rhodium prices have been on the rise this year.