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New York state DMV outlines new measures to deter catalytic converter theft

The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles is rolling out a new program aimed at stopping catalytic converter theft.

Catalytic converters have become a hot commodity on the black market with a street value of $200 to $500 each. Speaking in Albany Monday, DMV Commissioner Mark Schroeder says they contain precious metals, are an easy target for thieves and are quite costly to replace.

"Just to kind of give you an idea of how costly these metals are, as of December of 2020, Rhodium was valued at $14,500 per ounce," Schroeder said. "Palladium was at $2,336 per ounce, and Platinum at around $1,000 per ounce. Nationwide, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the number of thefts has ballooned from about 1200 in 2018, to more than 14,000 in 2020. The nationwide increase alone in 2020 was more than 300%."

Detective Maureen Stefenelli is assigned to the New York City Police Department's auto crime division. She and a colleague came up with the idea of etching a traceable serial number onto a converter that can be clearly seen and quickly linked back to the vehicle from which it was stolen.

"This sticker is made by a third party company," said Stefenelli. "But to bring the program to New York was an idea that myself and Detective Thomas Burke put our heads together and came up with because we're trying to find any way to deter this theft working in auto crime, we work with the theft of catalytic converters, almost every day. And during COVID, there was a huge rise, and it still continues today."

The etching process involves affixing an adhesive sticker to the converter. Then a Q-tip is used to swab acid over the sticker which burns an identifying serial number into the device.

Albany Police spokesman Steve Smith says 23 catalytic converters have been reported stolen in the city since January 1st. Although thieves primarily target new car dealers, they also hit quiet residential streets under cover of night. It takes seconds for a thief to saw through exhaust pipes and fittings to remove a converter. Owen McShane, DMV's director of field investigations, says the converter etching kits, funded by state asset seizure accounts, are being sent out to car dealerships, but will be available to individual vehicle owners too.

"The catalytic converter is one thing but sometimes when they're taking it off, they'll cut right through the bottom of the car," McShane said. "They'll cut through wires. They'll cut through gas lines, and a car that's ready to be delivered to a customer is now delayed. The catalytic converter delays themselves can be 60 to 90 days. So if you have a car that's sold, it has to wait another 60 to 90 days to go to a customer."

McShane says damage can run as high as $10,000 per car. He notes there is pending legislation in several states to require the VIN, vehicle identification number, be etched in the catalytic converters of all cars being sold.

Although your vehicle may have just one, McShane says some cars and trucks have two and depending on make and model, as many as four individual catalytic converters placed along the exhaust system. The devices remove pollutants and without them a vehicle cannot pass New York State inspection.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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