Under the direction of hotel staff, the Olmscheid family parked their Kia Sportage in the back of the Country Inn and Suites in Eagan and took a shuttle to the airport to begin their vacation.
When they returned from their trip and started their vehicle, the family immediately knew something was seriously wrong.
“It was an embarrassing noise,” said Allison Olmscheid, of Sartell, Minnesota. Her husband looked under their car and saw two saw marks and no catalytic converter. “We never thought this would happen. It’s actually happening. We’re part of the numbers.”
No longer strictly a big city problem, catalytic converter theft has spread to the suburbs as well. A Star Tribune analysis of crime statistics from 23 Twin Cities suburbs shows thefts of catalytic converters have skyrocketed — from 300 in 2019 to more than 2,300 last year.
The sharp increase prompted the National Insurance Crime Bureau to name the Twin Cities metropolitan area as the riskiest place in the country for such thefts. And the trend has shown no signs of slowing, said Mark Kulda, vice president of public affairs for the Minnesota Insurance Federation.
“The numbers are actually continuing to rise, so the 2022 numbers are on track to eclipse the 2021 numbers, which were much higher than the 2019 and 2020 numbers,” he said.
Maplewood, Eagan, Bloomington and West St. Paul are among the suburbs that have seen so many catalytic converter thefts in recent years that they now list them as a separate crime statistic instead of lumping them together with other parts cases. stolen cars.
The Star Tribune requested five years of crime statistics from about 50 suburban law enforcement agencies, about two dozen of which provided specific numbers on catalytic converter theft.
Maplewood had the most robberies in the metro area last year, with 422, according to data collected by the Star Tribune. On a per capita basis, that makes the problem even worse than in St. Paul, with 1,877 thefts, or Minneapolis, with about 1,560.
Catalytic converters contain precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, which remove the worst toxic pollutants from a vehicle. Their rising value has made the metals more valuable than gold – literally – and puts the devices at the center of a crime wave in the Twin Cities. said Mikael Garland of the St. Louis Park Police Department.
It’s also an easy crime to commit, Garland added, noting that thieves can slip under a vehicle undetected and with a small battery-powered saw remove the part in minutes. Once in hand, thieves can sell the converters to junkyards that pay up to $1,000 each, or peddle them to Facebook Marketplace and other websites offering used car parts for perhaps- be even more, without fear of getting caught.
“There is no type of control or tracking of the sale of these items like there is for other metal sales,” Garland said.
Two years ago, the St. Paul City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting any person or business — other than a legitimate auto repair garage — from buying or selling an aftermarket catalytic converter. But there are few laws to deter thieves.
Rules like St. Paul’s have done little to slow thefts, said Brian Arthur of Converter King, a division of Metro Metals Recycling in Minneapolis, which on its website says its goal “is to pay our customers the best price for their catalytic converters”. “
“These guys are cheeky,” Arthur said. “It’s a rare commodity. It’s something that needs to stop.”
Arthur said his store requires sellers to produce a vehicle title, bill of sale or auction record when selling a converter or he won’t buy it. Other places do not follow these practices, he said.
“You know something is stolen by the way people act,” he said.
Stores buy converters for metals, which can be recycled to make new ones.
Catalytic converter theft is a thorny issue for victims, who often have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to get their car repaired, and for the police too.
Unless you catch thieves in the act, “it can be very difficult to catch these criminals and difficult to prove if the converters are recovered,” said Lt. Joe Steiner of the Maplewood Police Department.
There have already been 178 reported thefts in Maplewood this year, Steiner said.
Steiner attributed his city’s high numbers, which he called “alarming,” to repeat offenders and criminals who have resumed stealing because it’s quick and lucrative. He noted that many thefts have occurred in commercial parking lots, such as at 3M’s corporate headquarters, where vehicles are often left unattended for long periods of time. “It’s easier to blend in and not stand out.”
Last year, the Minnesota Legislature created the Catalytic Converter Theft Prevention Pilot Program to mark converters with identification numbers. Cities like Bloomington and the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office have pledged to promote the program, which burns numbers on catalytic converters. Once registered, the unique number allows law enforcement to trace a converter to a specific vehicle if a converter has been stolen and recovered.
“It’s sad that this action is even necessary,” said Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart.
“Hopefully this will deter crime,” said Kimberly Clauson, deputy chief of the Bloomington Police Department, which recorded more than 270 catalytic converter thefts last year. If scammers see the converter flagged, “we hope they move on to someone else.”
Other cities such as St. Louis Park have begun holding free events to mark catalytic converts with shiny, heat-sensitive paint. The city, which recorded 220 flights last year, hosted a Thursday and all 75 spots were taken.
“We can’t require a dealer to reject a marked converter, but if one is spray painted they may be more critical before accepting it, or if there is an individual that comes week after week, especially if they’ve been marked,” Garland said.
The program appears to have had some success, Garland said. “We only know of one or two [painted converters] that have been stolen.”
While victims feel theft most acutely, all drivers could feel the pain of the wallet. The Minnesota Insurance Federation estimates that stolen catalytic converters could result in up to $25 million in insured losses in the state this year, putting increasing pressure on auto insurance premiums.
With insurance, the Olmscheids only paid a few hundred dollars to have their vehicle repaired.
“We were lucky,” Allison Olmscheid said. “But the experience was still disconcerting. It’s not a good experience to have.”