Fairbanks thieves target catalytic converters

A pitpe under a car
An exhaust pipe cut to remove a catalytic converter. (Metropolitan Garage)

Catalytic converter theft from vehicles is on the rise across the country, including in the Fairbanks area. The exhaust system component contains precious metals which have spiked in value: The units can be sold legally and illegally for as much as a thousand dollars. 

Fairbanks-based Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Brian Zeisel said catalytic converter theft is nothing new, but it is increasing in the Fairbanks area.

“It started spiking there towards the end of this past summer. It’s been over 35 cases — 35 to 40 cases at least — that we’ve seen, and that’s huge.”

Zeisel said vehicles left parked for extended periods of time have been a common target.

“We’ve had dealerships that have had converters stolen from their vehicles, government vehicles, we’ve had a church that had a couple of their vehicles, one of their vans,” he said.

The thefts often go unnoticed at first.

“They’re not noticed until days, or even weeks later because some of these vehicles have been sitting there for a while,” he said.

Fairbanks Police Detective Andrew Adams said areas within the city have also seen a similar spike in catalytic converter thefts, a crime which can be carried out quickly, he said.

“Just slide underneath a parked vehicle. Generally, using a battery-operated saw, they cut the two pipes leading into and out of the catalytic converter, and perhaps a mounting bolt, and the catalytic converter drops right off and they can be in and out in two minutes,” he said.

Detective Adams and Sergeant Zeisel said thieves can sell catalytic converters in state and online to outside recyclers.

“I’ve been told by a dealer that, you know, some of these actual converters — because of the type of precious metal that’s in them — you can get upwards of $1,000. I haven’t seen that since I’ve been doing this, but I’ve seen it upwards of like $300,” he said.

With no serial numbers, catalytic converters are hard to track or recover, leaving owners of vehicles hit by thieves with hefty repair bills.

“If you buy an after-market catalytic converter that doesn’t work very well or doesn’t last very long, it can be, you know, a little over $1,000. Most of the newer cars have requirements that make them cost closer to, you know, $4,000 to $9,000,” said Steve Levy, a co-owner of Metropolitan Garage in Fairbanks.

He said a few vehicles in their shop parking lot have been targeted by thieves, and they’re regularly replace stolen catalytic converters for their customers.

“In the past it would happen occasionally. Now, it’s an everyday event,” he said.

“It’s not something that’s going to go away soon because the market for it exists,” said Rebecca Levy, Metropolitan Garage’s other co-owner.

The Levys said some insurance covers replacement of stolen catalytic converters, and that the shop has developed some add on anti-theft solutions.

Other Fairbanks vehicle repair shops are also dealing with catalytic converter theft: Mike Simard, who runs two local shops, said some vehicles are easy prey.

“Something that’s lifted, a lifted vehicle. A van, a truck anything that’s higher off the ground,” he said.

Simard said low slung hybrids like the Toyota Prius are tougher targets but their catalytic converters sell for more. He said stamping identification numbers into catalytic converters can help deter theft.

“If you have a row of 10 vehicles and you were to [zero] in on one that has a VIN number stamped on the side of it, you’re likely going to go ahead and move on to the next one,” he said.

He also emphasized basic awareness.

“Keeping an eye on your surroundings, parking in well-lit areas. Having cameras,” he said.

Simard said a surveillance camera helped catch a thief stealing a catalytic converter from a vehicle parked at his downtown Fairbanks shop.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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