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Precious metals spur catalytic converter thefts in McHenry County communities

The catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system, a honeycomb of mesh coated in precious metals that help protect the environment by controlling harmful emissions.

The converters are required in every vehicle produced in the U.S. since 1975.

But catalytic converters are also a thief magnet, a prize of the precious metals platinum, rhodium and palladium, and their thefts have been on the rise in McHenry County and across the country.

According to Kitco.com, a website that tracks prices of precious metals, an ounce of rhodium was valued at $15,750; an ounce of palladium was valued at $2,222; and platinum was valued at $1,062.

Woodstock had about 10 catalytic converters reported stolen over the past month throughout the town, Police Chief John Lieb said.

“The criminals here want to work quickly,” Lieb said. “They target and depart. But it’s not just Woodstock. It’s the entire Chicagoland area all the way from the South Side of Chicago up to Woodstock and probably beyond. They climb under a car, use a (reciprocating saw) and it probably takes them five minutes or less.”

Prius and Honda Civic cars are generally targeted for catalytic converter thefts, Lieb said, but in Woodstock, all types and brands of vehicles were involved.

“It’s tough to say because if they work hard enough, they can get any of them,” Lieb said.

Crystal Lake Deputy Chief Rick Neumann said so far this year, six catalytic converters were reported stolen there.

“We take all reports and do thorough investigations,” Neumann said.

Lake in the Hills reported four catalytic converter thefts so far this year, McHenry had one and the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office had no reports this year.

In Woodstock, thieves have stolen catalytic converters from cars at apartment complexes where residents don’t have garage and from vehicles parked at homes and at businesses, Lieb said.

“The people who are doing this now is a burglary-type crew,” Lieb said. “They seem to be similar to the individuals who were stealing cars over the past year, and this has become a subsequent crime. Instead of stealing the whole car, they can just take this one part and make a decent amount of money off it.”

Another aspect to the thievery is that one of the metals is also used to make meth, Lieb said.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the National Institutes of Health, clandestine laboratories use many chemicals to produce methamphetamine, including palladium.

Lieb said the department urges residents to park in well-lit areas if possible, or where there is video surveillance, to deter thieves.

“We frequently tell people if they see someone digging around under a car, don’t hesitate to call us,” Lieb said. “Our officers have no problem checking it out.”

Sometimes parking in a lighted area with video surveillance doesn’t really help. It just documents that someone slid under the car at 2 a.m. and out at 2:05 a.m.

Rick Tomlinson, the service manager at Mike’s Auto Works in Spring Grove, just an SUV brought in that had its catalytic converter stolen – all documented by the video surveillance of the Spring Grove business where the theft happened.

He said he could not replace the stolen part because Mitsubishi requires that it come from the dealership.

“It’s on back order with no release date,” Tomlinson said. “It could be six months, eight months.”

Joe Remke, owner of Remke’s Garage in Marengo, said a company in Chicago that supplies his uniforms experienced a mass converter theft from 20 trucks in its fleet.

Remke said he saw the surveillance footage: “He rolled from truck to truck in 15 minutes. It was in a gated yard and everything. He threw them over the top of the fence and left.”

Nationally, catalytic converter thefts have increased, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization based in Des Plaines that fights insurance crime. NICB reported 14,433 catalytic converter thefts in 2020, up from 3,389 reported in 2019 and 1,298 in 2018, according to its website.

Replacing the converter can cost from $1,000 to $3,000 depending on the type of car and whether insurance will cover all or most of it, according to the NICB website.

In addition to Lieb’s suggestions, the organization also urges vehicle owners to to install motion sensor security lights, have a car alarm and install a catalytic converter anti-theft device, a metal shield bolted to the frame that covers the catalytic converter.

Other suggestions are to have the license plate number etched on the converter to make it more difficult for the thief to take it to a recycler or scrap yard.

Steve Vache, owner of Lucky Knuckles Garage in McHenry, said he helped one customer whose car was damaged by a failed effort to steal the catalytic converter.

“He attempted but did not get all the way through,” Vache said. “We were able to fix it.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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