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One morning last summer, a loud noise rang out in Jennifer Fegely’s neighborhood, waking her up around 6 a.m.
Fegely got out of bed and looked out the Liberty Wells window to find the source of the sound, which she described as “concrete crushing”. A fence blocked her view, so she figured crews were probably doing public works, then went back to sleep.
But when her husband left for work, the couple realized the cause of the noise was more sinister: someone had cut the catalytic converter in their truck.
“I kind of thought [the truck starting up] was so loud, I knew the muffler was no longer attached,” said Travis Jones, Fegely’s husband, adding that he “felt vulnerable and angry.”
Catalytic converter theft has increased 585% in Utah from 2018 to 2021, according to a statewide analysis of police records from the attorney general’s office.
As individuals and businesses continue to pay expensive repair bills for such thefts, the legislature is considering a bill that would better catalog the devices and help crack down on their resale.
Why—and How—Converters Are Stolen
A catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system, which filters emissions coming out of a car‘s tailpipe. Although the devices are encased in stainless steel, thieves use everything from hand saws to tow chains to rip converters off vehicles, said Brian Everill, owner of auto repair company Master Muffler.
The converters contain small amounts of precious metals that have been rising in value lately, which he says has caused the rise in thefts.
“They’ll rip it all out in extreme cases,” Everill said. “They seem to have become more efficient and less sloppy over the past year. Which means whoever does it is probably doing a lot and getting better.
Everill joined ChamberWest’s Chamber of Commerce last year to support HB38, a bill that would set out additional penalties for catalytic converter theft and impose increased regulation of devices.
“We need a pretty big data trail with the bill,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden, said at a committee meeting in November.
This tracking would allow pawnbrokers and other retailers to enter the serial numbers of catalytic converters they receive for resale into a database. Then, if the original owner provides law enforcement with the serial number of their stolen device, police could cross-check it against the database to see if it’s been listed for resale and possibly figure out who sold it. ‘provided.
“Some of the comments that have resonated with me throughout this process,” Wilcox said of the measure in November, “is that it won’t end the theft of catalytic converters. It will help in lawsuits, it will help to push it towards other paths…. So it’s not over with this bill.
Everill wants to see the bill pass. But he also expressed concern that it doesn’t go far enough. He noted that, based on the replacement work he’s seen, thieves are removing converters more accurately than ever before. Their apparent skill suggests that more thieves may be able to extract the valuable precious metals from each converter themselves – through a process called “stripping” – which would remove the need for resale of the converter altogether.
“You can’t stop there,” Everill said of the measurement.
Expensive repairs and big losses for businesses
Everill said 2021 marked “unprecedented growth” for its stores. Its employees see up to 40 stolen catalytic converter replacement cases per week. This increase corresponds to the analysis of state data.
The bill for those replacements, plus any repairs that may be needed, can range from $500 to $20,000, he said. But that’s not how he wants to grow his business.
“For someone who doesn’t have [insurance] or, God forbid, isn’t assured, there’s been a lot of tears shed on our counters, and that’s the part that breaks your heart,” Everill said.
“We try to do the best we can,” he continued. “Anyone who gets a converter stolen, we guarantee them the lowest and best price available, but at the same time we also have to cover our costs… It’s quite difficult.”
After Jones’ converter was stolen, he had it replaced for around $2,200. The couple reported the theft to the police and their insurance company. But Jones said he did not follow the officers, as he assumed there was no way the police could get him.
The increase in theft is also costing local businesses dearly. ChamberWest – which represents the West Valley City, Taylorsville, West Jordan and Kearns business communities – became involved in the issue in early 2021, when a flood of area business owners reported thefts of catalytic converters.
“We had a food manufacturer who had delivery trucks and they were targeted — both in their parking lots and when they were making deliveries,” said ChamberWest CEO Barbara Riddle. “They were stopping at a grocery store to deliver, and while they were making the delivery, the catalytic converter was stolen.”
Such theft puts commercial vehicles out of service until a replacement can be fitted, resulting in lost revenue, Riddle said. One of the region’s food service delivery companies, which has offices across the country, reported a nationwide profit loss of $1.6 million between January and September 2021 due to the theft. of catalytic converters in the United States, Riddle said.
ChamberWest’s Legislative Affairs Committee created a task force to combat catalytic converter theft and met with police departments in their communities. Once they developed suggestions, they offered them to Wilcox and the bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.
Jones said he and his wife now keep their cars off the street. The mechanic who replaced their converter told Jones that they also keep the vehicles they work on inside now.
“They have to go after people who buy; they need to find out who is buying the stolen converters,” Jones said. “If they can stop that, then the market will disappear.”