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Authorities Bust Major Catalyst Theft Ring Spanning The Country

Though Massachusetts residents ran it, a catalytic converter theft gang managed to work with people across the country as it stole more than 470 cats that sold for anywhere between $30,000 and $80,000. Indeed, the numbers of cats stolen may have been much higher.

In the last couple of years – at least since the start of the pandemic – there have been many stories about catalytic converter thefts and the vehicles that thieves target most, as well as why nefarious types would steal such an essential part of an internal combustion engine’s (ICE) hardware.

Ford retools Ontario Plant To Build Next-Gen EVs.

Cats Easy To Get

With the number of stories that have appeared about cat theft, you had to know there was an epidemic of it. The why is easy. Catalysts are easy to get in many vehicles that have been used since the 1980s when their use became widespread. Cat thieves, who honestly are chancing serious injury when they dive under the trucks and cars they target, consider it low-hanging, profitable fruit.

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Though the catalyst devices themselves are little more than glorified resonators stuffed with either a wire mesh matrix coated with anti-pollution catalytic material or with the matrix and a series of marble-like devices over which vehicle emissions pass on their way to the tailpipe. Noble metals like palladium, rhodium, and platinum, among other trace amounts, are used to clean up vehicle emissions because they react well with harmful pollutants, rendering them pretty much neutral.

For several years before and more especially during the pandemic, gangs of thieves have roamed around looking for vehicles like the older Ford E-Series vans and Ford F-150 pickups. One of the attractive features of each vehicle is that the catalytic converters are relatively exposed and easily removable. Thieves are attracted to the huge pricing that noble metals attract. This week, for example, one ounce of platinum appeared on the spot market, priced at $920. Meantime, the spot market price of an ounce of palladium was $1,513, while an ounce of rhodium was $7,600. Cats are easy prey to a crew of thieves interested in what they see as big scores.

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Of course, the thieves ignore some major issues dealing with catalytic converter theft. First, there’s the question of safety as some vehicles, most notably the older Toyota Prius and some Honda models, must be jacked up so the thief can access the catalytic converter, which sits on the underside of the engine, not far from the road surface. This means a thief has to jack up the vehicle and hope it doesn’t fall on him as he works the mechanical saw. This happened to an unlucky cat thief squashed by a falling vehicle when it slipped off the jack earlier this year. And then there’s the problem of using a mechanical saw to cut through the ends of the catalyst. As mechanical saws tear through the metallic pipes, the sparks generated by mechanical saws are enough to set off fires under the vehicle, leaving the thief at the mercy of whatever the fumes leave him. Sometimes, it isn’t a very good ending, either.

Risk-Rewards Cancel Thoughts Of Other Issues

Still, the risk-reward thoughts of cat thieves cancel out any risks in obtaining the cats. Why else would they brave the dangers of falling vehicles and fires caused by sparks as fumes under a vehicle go off?

EVs will thwart organized catalytic converter rings.

The lure of big paydays has apparently drawn an organized cat theft crew near Boston to steal what must be a motherlode of catalytic converters. According to federal court officials, seven crew members were arrested this week. The enterprising thieves were not only found with cats taken from more than 470 vehicles. They also were involved in thefts of automatic teller machines and items taken during thefts from jewelry stores, said, which provided much of the background for this story.

Ford sourcing will for EVs will likely discourage catalyst thieves

The investigation that resulted in the arrest of the cat thieves was in response to work done by more than 70 police departments across New England. Charges arising from the investigation include:

  • Conspiracy to transport stolen property in interstate commerce
  • Interstate transportation of stolen property
  • Conspiracy to commit bank theft
  • Bank theft
  • Money laundering conspiracy

The defendants, who faced arraignment in Boston federal court this week, are all Massachusetts residents.

Cats Have Variety Of Pricey, Precious Metals

As noted, the lure of the noble metals inside and the payday that thieves will achieve are very tempting to a gang of cat thieves. With dreams of dollar signs, they look for tempting targets everywhere, from neighborhoods to parking lots and other locations where their victims may be parked. The thieves haven’t cared that when they cut out the catalytic converter, they cause major damage to the vehicles and leave the vehicle inoperable until the cat is replaced.

According to court documents, the cat thieves had it down to a science. Once they found a vehicle, a pair of cat thieves would get under the vehicle, and in about a minute, authorities note, they had the cat cut out, and they were on their way with the stolen emissions device stored safely in the trunk of their getaway vehicle.

Interestingly, court papers noted that the owner of the identified getaway vehicle was engaged in the full-time cat and other thefts nightly – in eight-hour shifts. He was also an excellent record keeper; court papers noted that they would indicate where the cats were stolen from, the number of cats taken, and the makes and models of vehicles from which they were taken.

The cat theft gang took the cats from at least 471 vehicles in 2022 and 2023. Authorities believe this was only the tip of the catalytic iceberg, as many thefts were likely never reported. Authorities also noted that the gang hit more than 10 cars in one night. On another night, 26 vehicles were reportedly hit.

Gang Made Up Of Massachusetts Residents

Though the gang comprised Massachusetts residents, it had links to scrap dealers throughout the Northeast, where the converters would be sold. Indeed, the person who reportedly ran the ring also took in work from several theft crews.

The scrap dealers who bought the boosted cats ranged from local scrap dealers to dealers in Connecticut, New Jersey, California, and Oklahoma. They handled between $30,000 and $80,000 per week in stolen cats. The total number of stolen cats sold to scrap dealers is in the thousands.

ATMs, Jewelry Stores Also Hit

The gang also was eclectic in its tastes. Members of the gang boosted ATMs from federally insured banks. And they also committed burglaries at two New Hampshire jewelry stores where they took over $137,000 worth of goods, leaving repair costs of over $10,000.

Investigators from 70 local police departments in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut worked on this investigation. They also coordinated with federal authorities across the country.

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Marc Stern has been an automotive writer since 1971 when an otherwise normal news editor said, “You're our new car editor," and dumped about 27 pounds of auto stuff on my desk. I was in heaven as I have been a gearhead from my early days. As a teen, I spent many misspent hours hanging out at gas stations (a big thing in my youth) and working on cars. From there on, it was a straight line to my first column for the paper "You Auto Know," an enterprise I handled faithfully for 32 years. Only a few people know that I also handled computer documentation for most of my earnings while writing YAN. My best writing, though, was always in cars. My work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Mechanix Illustrated, AutoWeek, SuperStock, Trailer Life, Old Cars Weekly, Special Interest Autos, etc. You can follow me on: Twitter or Facebook.