By Scott Carlson
At 3 a.m. one day this past spring, Lou Smith awoke to the sound of “metal grinding on metal.” He looked out a house window, didn’t see anything and went back to sleep.
Later that morning, when the St. Anthony Park man went to start his Prius, he heard an awful scraping sound from underneath the hood of his car. Smith took his car to Park Service to find out what was wrong: Someone had stolen his car’s catalytic converter.
After sustaining that theft, Smith got the catalytic converter replaced. A few months later, thieves struck again, this time in mid-September when—again—he heard a terrible grinding noise of “metal on metal” outside his house.
“I remember I ran outside as fast as I could, but it didn’t matter,” Smith said, noting the thieves got away without his even seeing them.
After that second catalytic converter theft, Smith had Park Service in St. Anthony Park, install a metal shield on the undercarriage of his car to deter further thievery.
These days, Park Service has been fixing plenty of cars with stolen catalytic converters. Most of them have been Toyota Prius and older model Honda cars, said shop owner Ned Wesenberg.
St. Paul Police Department officials said that Prius cars, in particular, are a favorite target for catalytic converter thieves because of their relatively high amount of precious metals, including copper and aluminum.
“Catalytic converter theft has been an ongoing issue for some time” across the city, said Patty Lammers, crime prevention specialist for the St. Paul Police Department’s Community Partnerships Unit. She noted the City Council passed an ordinance limiting when catalytic converters can be sold, “but it does not stop Facebook sales, and sales out of St. Paul.”
The raft of catalytic converter thefts has prompted some SAP residents, like Jonathan Kirsch, to take defensive steps to protect their cars.
“I was noticing on the (neighborhood email) listserv that people were posting about catalytic converters’ getting stolen frequently and having a Prius . . . I was concerned that I would be hit soon because there were so many cars affected within a couple of blocks of my home,” Kirsch told the Bugle.
“One of the things that I did to mitigate my risk was to get a ring video doorbell which records what happens in front of my house and the other was to put on a catalytic converter cover, which I had done by Park Service.”
Replacing a catalytic converter is not cheap. Without auto insurance, Smith said he would have been out thousands of dollars.
For Smith, the thefts have left him frustrated and angry. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Smith said he understands that for people without jobs and plenty of time on their hands, stealing the converters may seem like a quick way to make a buck.
“I know that times are tough because of the economy,” Smith said, “but I still find it (catalytic converter theft) annoying.”
Smith said public officials might be able to clamp down on the problem if scrap dealers were required to buy scrap metals only from licensed sellers.
Currently, State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, is sponsoring legislation to do just that. In March, he became chief sponsor of a bill that would prevent scrap metal dealers from buying catalytic converters from anyone other than a bona fide automobile repair shop.
Besides the high resale value of catalytic converters to scrap metal dealers for their precious metals, the car components are relatively easy to steal and lack identifying marks, Marty said in a news release.
“Because of the ease with which thieves have been able to sell multiple stolen converters and the speed with which they can saw off multiple converters, they are making quick money while causing huge problems for car owners,” Marty said. “Senate File 3898 will make it much more difficult for thieves to sell them and should decrease catalytic converter theft in Minnesota.”
Marty held a virtual community forum in mid-October to address the issue of catalytic converter theft and discuss potential legislative solutions. He held the meeting with Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-St. Paul, and Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis.
Scott Carlson is managing editor of the Bugle.