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Newberg has joined other cities in seeing increased theft of the expensive automotive parts

DREAMSTIME PHOTO - The theft of catalytic converters is on the rise in Newberg and throughout the Portland metropolitan area.

Newberg has joined a growing list of unfortunate Oregon towns that have seen an uptick in the theft of an important component of modern vehicles: catalytic converters.

Thieves are taking cordless tools in hand, usually reciprocating saws, and often under the cover of darkness quickly removing the parts from cars, trucks, even school buses.

"Usually, people don't know anything is wrong until they start up their car and it makes a very loud noise," said a spokesman from the Tigard police department.

Why are thieves targeting this specific part? Because the process that catalytic converters use to reduce the hydrocarbons emitted into the air via the tail pipe of the average vehicle uses precious metals, including platinum, rhodium and palladium. Thieves sell the metals on the black market for quick, albeit illegally gained, cash.

"Although Oregon law requires metal property transaction records for transportation and sale, it's believed the stolen catalytic converters are being sold off the record or transported in larger quantities across state lines," said Sgt. Cliff Lascink, property crimes supervisor at the Washington County Sheriff's Office.DREAMSTIME PHOTO - The auto parts are prized by thieves as they contain platinum, palladium and rhodium, all rare metals that can garner a big payout on the black market.

Begun primarily in the Portland area, the scourge of stolen catalytic converters has slowly spread to outlying areas, but in varying degrees.

"I don't have exact numbers as to how many catalytic converters have been taken as we do not currently track types of parts that are taken from vehicles," said Sgt. Brian Hagen of the Newberg-Dundee Police Department. "That being said, I can absolutely confirm there has been a rash of catalytic converter thefts in our area. I would estimate on average one is stolen in our area every couple of weeks. That has been the trend since early this year."

Hagen explained that someone arrested for stealing a catalytic converter could expect to be charged with first- or second-degree theft, depending on the value of the part.

Like most police departments, NDPD's ability to curb these thefts are limited and, oftentimes, for naught.

"Unfortunately, there is only so much local police departments can do to counter this type of property crime," Hagen said. "Our officers have caught suspects in the act of stealing all kinds of property, including catalytic converters, but those suspects are almost always cited and released back into the community because the jail will not lodge them."

The impetus for nearly all theft is the same, he added.

"Most, if not all property crime in this state is fueled by drug addiction," Hagen said. "With no mandates or even facilities for drug treatment, coupled with a revolving door of cite and release arrests, there is little deterrent for this type of crime in Oregon."

Other small cities now being hit by thieves

Even smaller metro cities like Tualatin have not been immune to catalytic converter thefts.

"We had four in August and 13 in September," Tualatin Police Chief Bill Steele said. "Our numbers look lower so far in October, but I know local agencies, to include us, have been making arrests."

Hillsboro, too, has seen such thefts rise. While only six thefts were reported in January, that number jumped to 20 in August, with 22 reported through the first 26 days of October, according to Hillsboro police.

In May, a Portland television station reported that several local muffler shops have been getting more business lately, with one telling they had seen a threefold increase in requests to replace stolen catalytic converters.

Legislation passed to thwart sales

State Sens. Chris Gorsek and Lew Frederick sponsored and helped pass a bipartisan bill that makes it harder to sell the stolen part.

Senate Bill 803 "prohibits scrap metal business from purchasing or receiving catalytic converters, except from (the) commercial seller or owner of vehicle from which catalytic converter was removed."

The bill, which goes into effect Jan. 1, was at the request of Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

In a legislative memorandum, Aaron Knott, Schmidt's policy director, wrote that more and more catalytic converters are being stolen because the apprehension rates are low "yet the cash return is significant."

"This has created an exploding black and gray market in stolen catalytic converters that is driving significant losses to Oregonian businesses and vehicle owners across the state," Knott said.

In an email to Pamplin Media Group, Schmidt wrote that SB 803 is a non-criminal solution to a problematic crime.

"Instead of calling for more prosecutions and resources, this bill addresses the underlying issue. These car parts are easy to steal and easy to sell," Schmidt wrote. "If we can shut down the illegitimate markets for these stolen goods, we will drastically undercut the incentives people have to steal them in them in the first place."

In addition to limiting catalytic converts sales to commercial vendors only, Schmidt says it requires that scrap metal businesses to "retain the make, model, year, vehicle identification number and license number associated with any catalytic converter they receive to ensure that even those unscrupulous commercial vendors willing to buy stolen catalytic converters won't be able to redeem their value."

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