HOUSTON — Crooks are crawling under vehicles and stealing a pricey part, and it's costing Houston drivers.
Over the weekend, Harris County Sheriff’s Office deputies busted a catalytic converter theft ring. 32 stolen car parts filled the trunk of a car. More than $14,500 was also found inside the vehicle. Four people were arrested.
People have been sounding off on KHOU 11’s Facebook page about the crime deputies say is growing exponentially nationwide.
Harris County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Fred Persons said he and his metal theft team investigated about 200 reports of catalytic converter theft in 2019. A year later, the reported cases soared into the thousands.
That’s just within one law enforcement agency. Police, constables and other law enforcement are also seeing a spike in the car exhaust part which contains a trio of precious metals: platinum, palladium and rhodium.
Every car built after 1974 has a catalytic converter. The part is attached to the belly of the vehicle and can be accessed by a person sliding under the vehicle. That’s why trucks and SUVs that sit higher off the ground are easier targets. Catalytic converters turn harmful pollution into less harmful emissions. And if your catalytic converter is stolen, you’ll know it as soon as you turn on your vehbicle.
The loud noise and the potential damage to the engine are why Mike Beglin, a mechanic at Sal’s Automotive near the Galleria, says you can’t drive without it. Beglin and Sgt. Persons both say the car part can be removed in under a minute by someone who knows what to do.
“And you just chop them right out with a saw, a little electric saw,” Beglin said. “Done.”
“They pull up in a car next to the vehicle, slide out the door,” Sgt. Persons said. “Get under the car, cut the converter and get back in the car. Video can usually catch the car. (If we) won’t get a plate, we sometimes never even see the suspect.”
While the car exhaust part is big, “what they’re after is this honeycomb material up in here,” said Beglin as he demonstrated where the mesh is located on the exhaust converter. “That’s what contains all the platinum and palladium and all that stuff. And the recyclers extract that out in real small amounts. But if they get enough catalytic converters, it adds up.”
There are only a few grams of the precious metals inside one catalytic converter. But if you can get ounce, it’ll trade for thousands right now.
“They’re cutting fences. They’re doing it in driveways,” Sgt. Persons said. “They’re doing it in broad daylight in Walmart parking lots.”
Sgt. Persons is working undercover for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. He’s scoping out scrap metal dealers which are not required to follow any strict regulations.
The car part is basically untraceable, so the best law enforcement investigators can do is pinpoint the make and model when they make busts like the one that happened in Harris County over the weekend.
Sgt. Persons said Toyota vehicles are the most targeted because some models have has many as four catalytic converters: two small ones in the front, and two big ones in the back. And they have more catalyst in them, because they’re a cleaner vehicle.
Zeeshan in Kingwood owns a 2017 Toyota Tundra which was targeted by catalytic converter thieves twice in 2020.
“I was surprised. I was shocked, actually," he said.
Zeeshan is so worried about becoming a target for a third time, KHOU 11 agreed to not use his full name or show his face in an interview.
According to a theft report he filed with the Houston Police Department, the first catalytic converter theft happened right outside his apartment door in August 2020.
“So when I got my truck within two weeks, the same thing happened again," he said.
So many catalytic converter thefts are happening nationwide that the part is now on backorder. And the repair is expensive.
“$1,200, $2,000 just for the part,” Beglin said.
Sgt. Persons said these thefts are happening every single day.
“It’s up, exponentially, in Harris County," he said.
State lawmakers may consider a bill that would put rules in place for scrap metal dealers. The proposed regulations would require a metal seller to prove they own the vehicle, the catalytic converter and show proof the seller purchased a converter to replace the one they’re selling. If it doesn’t pass this legislative session, Harris County is considering its own regulation, and the City of Houston is considering the creation of an ordinance.