Over the past two years, many people in the Denver area have been met with an unwelcome surprise when trying to start their cars. Their vehicles lurch forward and sputter as if the engine was failing. Many soon come to realize that the problem was the catalytic converter – or lack of one. Catalytic converter thefts have increased tenfold in the last two years in Denver, with more and more thieves routinely plucking the easy to access component to sell for large sums of money.
In 2019, the number of catalytic converter thefts in Denver was 14. In 2020, this grew to 268 before absolutely exploding in 2021 with 2,671 reported thefts. So far in 2022, 700 vehicles have either had their catalytic converters stolen or damaged.
“It is extremely expensive for the victim of a theft to replace a converter, and there’s potentially the loss of access to the vehicle while it’s being fixed,” said Douglas Schepman, Marketing and Communications Manager for the Denver Police Department. “It creates a significant hardship for the folks in our community.”
Once a catalytic converter is taken off a vehicle, there is no way of really telling the difference between a legally acquired one and a stolen one.
“One of the things that makes these thefts challenging to investigate and this crime difficult to enforce is that catalytic converters do not have a serial number; and so if a catalytic converter was recovered, how do you prove where and when it was stolen or from whom?” said Schepman.
Adrienne Benavidez, a Colorado State Representative from District 32 in Denver which includes the Commerce City and Berkeley neighborhoods, is no stranger to being a victim of catalytic converter theft. Representative Benavidez’s daughter had a catalytic converter stolen from her car in the middle of the night in June. Benavidez saw firsthand the very real problems it can cause for the victims of these crimes.
Her daughter could not get it replaced for two months, until the end of August. Thankfully she was insured which made the entire process much easier, but the cost can vary dramatically from car to car.
“Depending on the type of vehicle, it can take months, and if your insurance does not provide you with a rental car, you have to find alternative transportation so that it can be extremely disruptive to people’s lives,” said Benavidez.
Because of her experience, she was one of the prime sponsors of House Bill 1217 and Senate Bill 9, which aim to prevent catalytic converter theft by establishing an identification and grant program.
“Senate Bill 9 makes it so if you sell a detached catalytic converter, whoever you sell it to has to get all this information about you to be able to track where it came from,” said Benavidez. “The reason is that right now if you just go to sell it, there’s no way to track who sold it to them.”
Senate Bill 9, which was passed, will incentivize those who buy scrap metal to take this information down or be faced with fines and penalties.
Once her daughter got her converter replaced, a small cage was placed around it, a prevention strategy growing in popularity as a theft deterrent.
The precious metals they contain bring a high price for thieves looking to sell the converters. A catalytic converter has Platinum, Palladium, and Rhodium. On their own accord, these metals could be sold for a good amount of cash, but a catalytic converter contains all three of these metals at once, creating sort of a jackpot for those looking to earn money quickly. Criminals do not usually have the capacity to extract the metals on their own and must go to the buyer for this process.
Catalytic converters can be sold as scrap metal for between 300 and 1500 dollars. Many times thieves will target many cars at once in one area, further increasing the money they make when selling the metals. In a list of addresses of thefts provided to Bucket List Community Cafe by the Denver Police Department, repeat addresses pop up frequently when combing through the thefts from 2019-to 2022. This means multiple vehicles are being hit at the same time. In some cases, more than five cars were targeted at once.
A whopping 26 vehicles had converters stolen near 11795 E 45th Ave one night in August, 2020 in the Montbello neighborhood. Another big theft in the Park Hill neighborhood had 27 cars impacted near 4800 N Dahlia Street in February 2021. Specific car brands seem to be much higher targets for theft. Police have noticed that Honda’s Toyota’s and Fords are the top three makes for reported catalytic converter thefts in Denver.
While the police cannot determine if the rise of thefts is related to supply chain issues, backlogs are making it more difficult to get a converter replaced.
While inconvenient to the victims, these crimes largely have been without violence, but police are beginning to see a more worrying trend as they continue. Denver Police found that some thieves have had a “lookout” accompany them while they slide under the cars to saw off the catalytic converter.
This “lookout” usually carries a firearm, according to the Denver Police Department, and could threaten someone who tries to intervene in the converter theft. While police always recommend that you do not approach thieves and call 911 instead, the possibility of someone confronting someone who is vandalizing their car is a genuine concern.
Engravings and VIN numbers are starting to be put on converters, especially on new ones given to victims of the thefts. It will be substantially harder for criminals to sell the catalytic converters when they have some sort of identification attached to them. The Denver Police are looking to get more people aware of these thefts and have even hosted events where they engrave or tag people’s converters.
“We have partnered with Lincoln Tech and have done several etching events where the community could come in for free,” said Schepman. “I believe we have etched about 750 cars over the course of those events.”
The Denver Police have also done a pilot program in District 5 in Northeast Denver, which covers the Montbello neighborhood, where engraving tools are loaned to community members for them to do the etching themselves. For now, they say the best way forward is to prevent these thefts from happening until the criminals can be tracked and investigated.
“The problem is not that we do not have good penalties in place; it’s catching the people that do it to charge them,” said Benavidez.