2021 | Police & Fire

Catalytic converter thefts in Montgomery County have quadrupled in two years

Police say Prius catalytic converters are particularly vulnerable

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Thefts of catalytic converters from vehicles have skyrocketed recently both in Montgomery County and across the nation.

Photo from City of Takoma Park website

This story was updated at 3:05 p.m. Nov. 26, 2021, to clarify a 2019 statistic on thefts.

The number of catalytic converter thefts from vehicles in Montgomery County this year is more than four times as high as it was in 2019.

According to Montgomery County police data, there were 375 catalytic converter theft “offenses” from January through October of this year. That’s up from 83 during the same period in 2019, and 130 during the same period in 2020.

Montgomery County Det. David Courtemanche, of the Silver Spring Patrol Investigations Unit, told Bethesda Beat last week that an “offense” refers to one incident, regardless of how many items were stolen at once. Someone could have stolen multiple catalytic converters at one time, such as going to one parking garage and stealing catalytic converters from multiple vehicles, and it counts as one “offense.”

A catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system. It converts harmful gases into safer byproducts.

The increase in catalytic converter thefts in the county mirrors a national trend. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), there were an average of 282 catalytic converter thefts per month nationally in 2019, compared to more than 1,200 per month in 2020.

In the D.C. area, catalytic converter thefts have become a regional problem, Courtemanche said.

“Often, these guys will not hit just one jurisdiction, so it’s not just local to Montgomery County,” he said.

Courtemanche said the main factor behind the rash of thefts is the recent increase in the value of the metals the catalytic converters are made from. The parts are typically sold at scrapyards for cash.

Courtemanche said Toyota Priuses have been highly targeted because they are made from valuable metals such as palladium, platinum and Rhodium. Thieves sell the metals to scrapyards for $200 to $400, he said, noting that it typically costs at least $1,000 to replace a catalytic converter.

Other vehicles besides Priuses might be targeted for other reasons, Courtemanche said.

“Some other vehicles that are targeted are because they may be higher off the ground ….. because they can get underneath the car easier without using a jack and it’s easier for them to get the catalytic converter,” he said.

Thieves typically remove catalytic converters by using a high-speed jack to mount the vehicle, then a cutting tool saw such as a reciprocating saw to make two cuts on the exhaust pipe, allowing them to easily remove the catalytic converter, Courtemanche said.

Courtemanche said police occasionally arrest catalytic converter thieves, but it’s not common.

“The catalytic converters aren’t serialized, so there’s no way to tell, even if you found it, which car it came from,” he said.

Courtemanche said people can ask a mechanic to weld a bar to the frame of the car that goes over the catalytic converter, making it more difficult to remove. Vehicle owners might also want to consider installing home security cameras, he said.

Additionally, vehicle owners might marking their catalytic converter with paint in the event that it is later found at a scrapyard. He said he once talked to someone who had their car battery stolen and was able to recover it from a scrapyard later because it was marked.

The Takoma Park Police Department and RS Automotive started an “Etch and Catch” program last month, in which the department etches the vehicle’s license plate number onto the catalytic converter and spray paints it.

The objective is to deter theft by making it obvious to a criminal that if they steal a catalytic converter, it might be harder to sell without getting caught.

The “Etch and Catch” program is available for anyone, not just Takoma Park residents. As of Nov. 9, RS Automotive had etched and painted almost 90 catalytic converters, according to the city.

Barbara Thawley, a Kensington resident, told Bethesda Beat on Monday that the catalytic converter on the Prius her husband drives was stolen in the last few months. She said her husband was getting ready to go to work at 5:30 a.m. one day and noticed that someone had put a brick in front of the back tire.

“And then he noticed there were wires hanging down. And he knows a lot about cars, and he looked at it and realized they had taken the catalytic converter from the car,” she said.

Thawley reported the theft to the police. When officers came, they didn’t find any fingerprints on the car, but said similar thefts had occurred in the county.

“We actually had read in Nextdoor and police reports in the paper about thefts of catalytic converters, and we were discussing what to do about it,” she said. “And we had actually bought some kind of a plate that goes over the catalytic converter that makes it more difficult for people to steal, but we hadn’t had it installed yet.”

Thawley said that since the theft, they have installed a Ring security camera on their home.

“Now if somebody does come into our driveway or our yard, we get an alert on our phone. So that makes us feel a little more secure,” she said.

The NICB has other suggestions for avoiding catalytic converter thefts:

  • Park in a garage or other secure area
  • Install a motion sensor light
  • Park in a well-lit area
  • Make sure the vehicle is locked and has an alarm that is set
  • Install an anti-theft device

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com