Flagler County Sheriff’s detectives were receiving “a large influx of calls” about stolen catalytic converters. They were also detecting multiple Facebook Marketplace postings by two men announcing: “all catalytic converters get paid cash in hand same day pickup.”
No wonder: catalytic converters can be more valuable contraband than drugs–easier to acquire, easier to sell, and less punishable if caught. There are no aggravating factors that could turn a second degree felony into a first degree felony if the seller is transacting, say, within 1,000 feet of a school or a park. The transactions can just as easily take place in the park. The thieves are so accommodating that they advertise: “will come to you.”
This year alone, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office has had 13 documented reports of catalytic converter thefts. It started tracking the thefts in 2020, so the full year’s numbers are not available, but it had tallied five in the county and Palm Coast once it started keeping track, and stopped one theft in progress. The Bunnell Police Department tallied three in 2020.
In the most recent cases detected by Flagler sheriff’s detectives, Jorge Luis Toledo, 31, a resident Pearl Street in DeLand, and Oscar Olascoaga, 37, of Blue Lake Avenue in DeLand, were both arrested in Seminole and Volusia counties and face second degree felony charges of dealing in stolen property. But their arrests is illustrative of a nationwide epidemic of thefts of the pollution-control device in vehicles that includes precious metals more valuable than gold, and that make any vehicle of any age a target, even in broad daylight, as stealing the converters is very easy.
With stricter car-emission rules in place in most countries, including China, demand for the metals in the converters, like palladium, rhodium and platinum has soared. So have prices: an extractor of rhodium, for example, could sell an ounce of the metal for as much as $21,900. Palladium sold at $500 an ounce five years ago. It now sells for between $2,000 and $2,500, more than gold, according to the New York Times.
With a wrench and a bit of gall, a thief can remove a catalytic converter in two minutes. Vehicles parked in residential driveways are the targets of choice, though late-model SUVs and trucks are especially favored “because they sit higher off the ground (making for easier access) and the bolts that connect the converter are easily removed,” according to Allstate, the insurer. Once a vehicle is without its converter, it sounds like a loud, muffler-challenged motorcycle.
In Toledo’s case, detective Jayd Capela looked up his driving record and home address and got hold of some catalytic converters owned by the Sheriff’s Office. On March 25, Capela messaged Toledo on Facebook, showing interest in a transaction. He sent a picture of the converter, too. Toledo gave him his phone number. The two men agreed to meet at Ace Hardware in Bunnell, and agreed on a price: $150.
The Sheriff’s Office’s Special Investigations Unit and Special Assignment Unit gathered a few deputies and detectives for the sting operation, plus an informant who would be used to carry out the transaction.
The seller would tell Toledo that the converter had been stolen “and allow him to make a decision whether or not to move forward with the purchase.” The knowing purchase of a stolen good, of course, would result in a second degree felony. But the warning was also a chance for the buyer to decline and avoid prosecution.
At Ace, the informant told Toledo his story, which included the tale that he could acquire more such converters from a salvage yard without the yard’s owner knowing it. Toledo told the informant to go ahead and do so. The transaction was completed, Toledo handing over the cash, and the two men agreed to stay in touch for future transactions, and there was in fact one additional such transaction.
Capela followed similar approaches with Olascoaga, meeting him at the Jiffy Citgo gas station, though in that case the converter was equipped with a tracing and recording device. Two such meetings were set up and carried out. The whole thing was captured on video.
Warrants were secured, and the men arrested on out-of-county warrants in the other counties.
“While it can be difficult to predict when and where the next catalytic converter theft will occur, FCSO will continue to find innovative ways to ensure that anyone attempting to steal catalytic converters or purchase stolen catalytic converters will be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Sheriff Rick Staly said. “If you are buying property that you believe may be stolen I suggest you don’t do it as you might be buying from an undercover deputy! I would also like to thank the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office for assisting us with these undercover operations.”
Allstate, the insurer, offers tips on prevention of catalytic converter theft: “Some mechanics suggest welding the heads on the catalytic converter bolts — or simply shearing them off.” There are also “cages” that cost around $150 (as opposed to $1,000 for a replacement converter) can be installed by a mechanic or a handy vehicle owner.
Allstate provides the following theft-prevention tips:
- When possible, park in well-lit areas and close to building entrances.
- If you have a garage at your house, park your car inside and keep the garage door shut.
- Have the catalytic converter welded to your car’s frame, which may make it harder to steal.
- Consider engraving your vehicle identification number (VIN) on the catalytic converter — this may help alert a scrap dealer that it was stolen and make it easier to identify the owner.
- Calibrate your car’s alarm to set off when it detects vibration.
Catalytic converters have been installed on all gasoline-powered cars and trucks in the United States since 1975. The expense of converters is one of the reasons that electric cars are gaining in popularity, as converters are adding steep costs to gasoline-powered vehicles. “Max Layton, a London-based commodity analyst at Citi, estimates that soaring metal prices added $18 billion to the global auto industry’s production costs in 2019, gobbling up 15 percent of their total cash flow, and that those costs surged further in 2020,” the Times reported. “At current prices, he said, the industry as a whole was set to spend more than $40 billion this year just on metals for catalytic converters. The escalating costs, Mr. Layton said, were ‘putting pressure on automakers to shift to battery electric vehicles as quickly as possible.'”