When sophomore Kallee Bushfield went to start her silver 2009 Toyota Prius at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 16, she noticed it sounded significantly louder than usual.
She had first parked her car in the overflow parking lot near Tuve Hall on Sunday afternoon at around 2 p.m., and her dad thought that the 20-degree-below temperatures on Monday might have been the cause of the sound. But when the temperature rose again and her dad brought it into his shop, he noticed that a big chunk of the muffler was missing.
It was then that Bushfield and her father realized that her catalytic converter had been stolen.
“It’s so frustrating, because it had to have happened while it was like negative 20 degrees out,” Bushfield said. “I was just kind of in disbelief.”
According to Sam Clemens, the public information officer for the Sioux Falls police department, there have been at least 50 catalytic converters stolen from cars parked in Sioux Falls this year. But he said this uptick in thefts isn’t just a local phenomenon.
“This isn’t anything that’s just exclusive to Sioux Falls,” he said. “The thefts of catalytic converters have been on the rise and happening across the nation.”
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, there were 25,394 catalytic converter thefts from insured vehicles in the United States between 2008 and 2015. However, the true number of thefts could be much higher among uninsured vehicles.
Catalytic converters are devices that remove toxic emissions from a vehicle’s exhaust stream using rare metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium. It’s these materials that give the converters their value and make them appealing for thieves. An ounce of platinum was worth $1,296 in February according to Kitco Precious Metals, while an ounce of rhodium was valued at $24,000 and an ounce of palladium could go for $2,554.
“Inside the catalytic converter, there’s some type of rare metal that they actually tear the catalytic converter apart, and they would just remove that metal,” said Rick Tupper, associate vice president for safety and logistics. “Then they’re able to go sell that.”
A report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau states that thieves can sell catalytic converters to scrap dealers for between $20 and $240. Almost all gasoline-burning cars and trucks manufactured after 1975 have catalytic converters installed, though Bushfield said hybrid vehicles like her Prius are particularly vulnerable.
Thieves are more likely to target these types of vehicles because their catalytic converters retain more rhodium, palladium and platinum than traditional vehicles do. In addition, hybrid vehicles are often smaller and lighter, making them easier to jack up than larger cars.
“Because the hybrid converters are larger, they have more of those valuable materials, and you can get more money for stripping them and selling them for parts,” Bushfield said.
In order to remove catalytic converters, thieves must lie below a vehicle’s undercarriage and cut the converter out.
“Whoever stole this knew what they were doing,” Bushfield said. “They have the tools to remove all the bolts around it. They had a clean cut. They clipped the wires perfectly. The reason why they knew it was theft, too, is because they jacked up the car on a spot where it left the dent in the undercarriage of the car.”
These parts aren’t cheap to replace either. Two of the auto repair shops that Bushfield consulted when searching for a replacement gave her quotes of $1,200 and $1,500. She eventually ordered one from Brian’s Auto Repair in Elk Point, South Dakota, where she bought an off-the-market replacement for $250. This converter didn’t have the same precious metals in it, so it didn’t cost as much as a traditional one.
“I have that off-brand part that’s not as valuable, and I’m just hopeful that if someone were to jack up my car again, they would know the difference,” she said.
Bushfield said that, while she did report the theft to Campus Safety, there wasn’t much that they could do to help her because the parking lot it was stolen from does not have security cameras. Tupper said Campus Safety has been more focused on checking the parking lots since, but they can’t be there watching all of the time.
Bushfield did not file a police report because she did not need to go through insurance for the theft.
Clemens said there’s very little people can do once a catalytic converter has been stolen. They don’t have serial numbers or model numbers that can be matched up to a certain vehicle, so once a converter has been removed, there is no way to track it back to the source.
“There’s just a lot of things that kind of add up and make it a very difficult crime to solve unless we’re able to catch somebody doing it,” Clemens said.
Tupper encourages students to call Campus Safety immediately if they see any suspicious behavior around parked vehicles.
“Our eyes and ears are students,” Tupper said. “If you see somebody walking in a parking lot and it looks like they’re trying doors, or you see them acting suspicious, call us, and then we can get over there right away and check on them.”