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Bess Wills, Gresham Ford, seek solutions alongside law enforcement to property theft epidemic

COURTESY PHOTO: BALLISTA, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS - Catalytic converters are being stolen for the precious metals they contain.When a Gresham resident shopping at Lowe's witnessed what appeared to be black market transactions over stolen catalytic converters, he knew just who to call.

Bess Wills, owner of Gresham Ford, has made it her personal mission to push back against the alarming number of catalytic converters thefts across the region while supporting victims. The caller that afternoon was a former employee, and they offered significant information peeling back layers of what happens to the stolen parts.

That person, who wanted to remain anonymous, watched as a driver in a Prius without license plates and at least a dozen catalytic converters in its trunk, apparently bought more stolen parts. The witness wrote down all the information and began to follow the buyer. A phone call to 911 and the nonemergency number led nowhere, according to Wills — the property theft didn't warrant an emergency and the other option left the person on hold for 45 minutes as more converters traded hands.

Wills took up the torch.

She drove to the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in Troutdale after similar struggles to get through to someone via the nonemergency line. With her was a notebook filled with evidence she had collected through the years: victim information, where the thefts took place and what vehicle makes were targeted.

"We need our law enforcement and (district attorney's office) to truly get involved and get these people prosecuted," Wills said. "Once we can get these buyers out of the picture, the little thieves will go away."

Wills handed evidence from the Lowe's parking lot and other information she had collected, which led to a significant break in the case, a sheriff's deputy told the local car dealer.

While details are being withheld by the sheriff's office because of the active investigation, Wills relayed her info that helped identify a potential local buyer of stolen converters. That person, a Wood Village resident, allegedly had a garage filled with hundreds of converters and a Lamborghini apparently purchased with the profits, Wills said. No recent arrests have been made by the sheriff's office related to catalytic converters.

"I believe all of us working together can make our community better," Wills said. "We can't accept not being able to prevent these thieves from taking our cat converters."

Catalytic black market

Catalytic converters are an emission control device attached to vehicles' exhaust systems. The parts are attractive to thieves because they are easy to remove and contain valuable metals that can be sold for a quick buck.

It appears that thefts of the converters are done by people often targeting vehicles based on ease of access. The stolen converters are then sold for a few hundred dollars to a middleman. That is where the real profits come into play, with scrap values estimated between $800 to $1,500, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

That middleman, like the one rooted out by Wills, flips the converters to auto supply companies and scrapyards looking for precious metals like platinum and rhodium. The price for those has skyrocketed during supply chain slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Some of those buyers have websites with few checks and balances. One business in New Jersey offers PayPal online payments for the purchase of catalytic converters.

The real cost comes to victims, who pay an average of $1,000 to replace the part, according to Gresham Ford. With so many thefts occurring, manufacturers are forced to back-order the devices, adding weeks to repairs. According to KOIN 6 News, one victim who left their car in the economy lot at the Portland International Airport in October, had to wait nearly three months for a replacement. All that time the vehicle cannot be safely driven.

The airport has been a popular place for these thefts. From January to October 2021, the Port of Portland said there had been 67 catalytic converter thefts, 84 vehicles stolen, including rental cars, and 38 auto break-ins at parking lots and roadways around the airport. For context, the port added that there were more than 1 million cars parked in that same 10-month period.

Many in East Multnomah County have been targeted. According to law enforcement, it takes only minutes for a catalytic converter to be stolen, with thieves sliding under a vehicle with a saw. It appears the most common targets are Toyota Prius and Honda models, though all vehicles can be targeted.

There are some potential deterrents to catalytic converter thefts. Law enforcement urges people to park in well-lit areas, or inside garages; engrave or etch vehicles' VIN or license plate numbers onto the converter so if recovered it can be returned; or purchase a catalytic converter clamp or other anti-theft shields. Though those may help, there have been few successful deterrents to the thefts, which continue to rise.

"We have looked at those (deterrent) devices, but they cost about $300," Wills said.

Costing millions

Gresham Ford has had several thefts of catalytic converters in the past few years, leading to the need for increased security. My Father's House, a local nonprofit shelter, had its trucks targeted multiple times, leading the shelter to start paying to park the vehicles in a garage. Pamplin Media Group had a delivery truck damaged by the theft of a converter, costing thousands to repair.

"I've had a single mother come in with a car that was damaged during a theft, and she didn't have the insurance to cover the replacement," Wills said. "So she was looking at a $1,400 bill to repair a car she wasn't able to drive."

Oregon ranks sixth in the nation in catalytic converter thefts, according to State Farm Insurance. Those numbers don't show any signs of slowing, especially as local law enforcement agencies like the Gresham Police Department and Portland Police Bureau do not have the staff to conduct sting operations.

Legislators in Salem took up the issue this year. The result was Senate Bill 803, which becomes law in January. It prohibits scrap metal businesses from purchasing or receiving catalytic converters except from commercial sellers or from the owner of a vehicle. It also prohibits scrap metal businesses from paying for catalytic converters in a form other than electronic funds transfer, a credit card or a debit card.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt asked lawmakers to introduce the legislation. Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law in late June. It takes effect Jan. 1.

Another solution, posited by Wills, is creation of a toll-free hotline that would allow Gresham residents to call whenever a catalytic converter is stolen. All of that information could be collected in a more formal way than Wills' own grassroots, private eye notebook.

"Property crime, when it gets to this level, needs to be addressed," Wills said. "This is costing our community millions of dollars."

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