A Tigard police spokesperson frames the theft of catalytic converters from the undercarriage of residents' vehicles this way: "Usually, people don't know anything is wrong until they start up their car and it makes a very loud noise."
In Tigard, the theft of those necessary mechanical devices — which keep a motorist's vehicle from belching out harmful carbon monoxide — has increased significantly over the last two years. So far this year, 107 catalytic converters have been reported stolen in Tigard, which is significant in itself.
"For a long time, we weren't really seeing any, but then the price of metal went up during COVID and thieves are seizing the opportunity to make a buck," said Kelsey Anderson, the Tigard Police Department spokesperson. "We've seen them stolen from commercial vehicles, in business lots and from personal cars while the owner is at work."
While there was only one catalytic converter reported stolen in Tigard in January, 20 thefts were reported in August and 19 in September.
"The crime analysts communicate and share information, and we know that other areas are reporting thefts, so these are a very transitory individuals/groups," Tigard Police Chief McAlpine said.Â "We have made a few arrests, but due to jail COVID restrictions, we have had to release them on a citation, and we know that is not an effective deterrent." Â
What makes catalytic converters such a prized target is not only the precious metals they contain, but also the ease in which they can be taken.
"With the right tools, it could be a matter of minutes for a thief to remove the converter and be on their way," observed Sgt. Danny DiPietro, spokesperson for the Washington County Sheriff's Office.
That quick escape means it's harder to catch the metal thieves.
While Tigard police arrested a catalytic converter thief on Oct. 10, after a witness watched him remove the mechanical device from a school bus at Durham Elementary School, such instances are rare, said Anderson.
As in Tigard, thefts reported to the Washington County Sheriff's Office have increased significantly over the last year.
"In 2020, we took about 30 reports of these thefts. So far in 2021, there's been around 175 reports," said Sgt. Cliff Lascink, property crimes supervisor for the Washington County Sheriff's Office. "The most common type of vehicle being targeted is the Toyota Prius. However, other makes/models of both personal and commercial motor vehicles are also being targeted."
Lascink said that based on descriptions, it appears most of the cases involve individuals acting alone or in pairs. While he said there are likely some organized groups involved, it is not the bulk of what the Sheriff's Office is currently seeing.
"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," Lascink said.
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 last month. "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, KOIN News 6, a news partner of Pamplin Media Group, 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.
The part sells for $500, according to Sen. Chris Gorsek, a Troutdale Democrat who along with Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat, 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, 2022, 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," wrote Knott.
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."
So, will the new law help reduce the number of catalytic converters stolen around the area?
"The bill is the step in the right direction, and I appreciate that our elected officials understand that this has become a national issue and that stricter measures are necessary," said Tigard's Chief McAlpine. "Unfortunately, another method is to sell them on the black market, where the metals are transported and sold in other states."
While Tualatin's Chief Steele is hopeful about SB 803 helping to reduce the numbers of catalytic converters stolen in the area, "that remains to be seen," he said.
Max Egener contributed to this report.
Catalytic converter theft-prevention tips
The Tigard Police Department offers the following tips:
n Park vehicles in a garage or well-lit areas, ideally with camera surveillance.
n Avoid parking in unattended lots for a long time.
n Research options to secure the device with a lock, strap, cage or bolts.
n Engrave license plate number or VIN on the converter.
n Look outside if you hear unusual noise or call police if you see suspicious activity.
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