Catalytic converter theft is skyrocketing in Utah. Why are they stolen, and what’s being done?

Thefts are up by almost 600 percent, the attorney general’s office reported. One local auto shop is seeing up to 40 catalytic converter replacement cases a week.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sam Howard, assistant manager at Master Muffler in Murray replaces a worn out catalytic converter on a vehicle on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Catalytic converter thefts are spiking in Utah, and some legislation is being considered to help track stolen converters.

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One morning last summer, a loud noise rang through Jennifer Fegely’s neighborhood, waking her up at about 6 a.m.

Fegely got out of bed and peered out her Liberty Wells window to find the source of the sound, which she described as “grinding concrete.” A fence blocked her view, so she told herself crews were probably doing some utility work, then went back to sleep.

But when her husband went to leave for work, the couple realized that the cause of the noise was more sinister: Someone had cut out their truck’s catalytic converter.

“I kind of figured [the truck starting up] was so loud, I knew that the muffler was no longer attached,” Travis Jones, Fegely’s husband, said, adding that he “felt vulnerable and angry.”

Catalytic converter theft increased in Utah by 585% from 2018 to 2021, according to a statewide analysis of police records from the attorney general’s office.

As individuals and businesses continue to foot big-ticket repair bills for such thefts, the Legislature is considering a bill that would better catalog the devices and help clamp down on their resale.

Why — and how — converters are stolen

A catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system, which filters emissions coming out of a car’s tailpipe. Although the devices are encased in stainless steel, thieves are using everything from portable saws to towing chains so they can rip the converters from vehicles, said Brian Everill, owner of auto-repair company Master Muffler.

The converters contain small amounts of precious metals that have spiked in value lately, which is what he believes has caused the uptick in theft.

“They’ll rip out everything in extreme cases,” Everill said. “It seems like they’ve become more efficient, and less sloppy, in the last year. Which means that whoever is doing it is probably doing a lot of them, and they’re getting better at it.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sam Howard, assistant manager at Master Muffler in Murray replaces a worn out catalytic converter on a vehicle on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Catalytic converter thefts are spiking in Utah, and some legislation is being considered to help track stolen converters.

Everill joined the ChamberWest Chamber of Commerce last year in support of HB38, a bill that would outline additional penalties for catalytic converter theft and mandate more regulation of the devices.

“We’re requiring some pretty significant data tracking with the bill,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said during a November committee meeting.

That tracking would allow pawn shops and other retailers to enter the serial numbers of catalytic converters they receive for resale into a database. Then, if the original owner provides law enforcement with the serial number of their stolen device, police could cross-check it with the database to see if it’s been listed for resale, and potentially determine who brought it in.

“Some of the comments that have resonated with me throughout this process,” Wilcox said of the measure in November, “is that this won’t end the theft of catalytic converters. It’ll help in prosecutions, it’ll help in pushing it to other avenues. … So it’s not over with this bill.”

Everill wants to see the bill pass. But he also expressed concern it won’t go far enough. He noted that, based on the replacement jobs he’s seen, thieves are removing converters with more precision than ever before. Their apparent skill suggests more thieves may be able to extract each converter’s valuable precious metals themselves — through a process called “de-canning” — which would remove the need for converter resale altogether.

”You can’t stop there,” Everill said of the measure.

Pricey repairs — and big losses for businesses

Everill said 2021 marked “unprecedented growth” for his stores. His employees are seeing up to 40 stolen catalytic converter replacement cases per week. That uptick aligns with the state’s data analysis.

The bill for such replacements, along with whatever repairs might be necessary, can range from $500 to $20,000, he said. But it’s not the way he wants to grow his business.

“For someone who doesn’t have comprehensive [insurance] or, heaven forbid, is not insured, there’s been a lot of tears shed on our countertops, and that’s the part that just breaks your heart,” Everill said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brian Everill, COO at Master Muffler shops talks about the spike in catalytic converter thefts in Utah and his support for legislation being considered to help track stolen converters. Everill who testified during a hearing on the legislation in November holds a catalytic converter removed from a vehicle for replacement at the shop in Murray on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022.

“We try to do the best we can,” he continued. “Anybody who gets a stolen converter, we guarantee them like the absolute lowest, best pricing available, but at the same time, we’ve got to cover our costs too… It’s pretty rough.”

After Jones’ converter was stolen, he got it replaced for about $2,200. The couple reported the theft to police and their insurance company. But Jones said he hasn’t followed up with officers, because he assumed there was no way police could recover it.

The rise in theft is costing local businesses, too. ChamberWest — which represents the business communities of West Valley City, Taylorsville, West Jordan, and Kearns — got involved with the issue in early 2021, when a flood of area business owners reported catalytic converter thefts.

“We had a food manufacturer that had delivery trucks and they were being targeted — both in their parking lots, as well as when they were out making deliveries,” ChamberWest CEO Barbara Riddle said. “They pull up to a grocery store to deliver, and while they were in making the delivery, the catalytic converter would be stolen.”

Such theft puts commercial vehicles out of commission until a replacement can be installed — resulting in a loss of revenue, Riddle explained. One of the area’s food service delivery companies, which has locations across the country, reported a nationwide loss of $1.6 million in profits between January and September 2021 due to catalytic converter theft throughout the U.S., Riddle said.

ChamberWest’s legislative affairs committee created a task force to fight catalytic converter theft, and met with police departments across their communities. Once they developed suggestions, they proposed them to Wilcox and the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.

Jones said he and his wife now keep their cars off the street. The mechanic who replaced their converter told Jones they keep the vehicles they work on inside now, too.

“They have to go after the people that are buying; they have to figure out who’s buying the stolen converters,” Jones said. “If they can stop that, then the market will go away.”