A recent surge of thefts of catalytic converters in Billings is now on the decline and officials attribute that to good police work while recycling businesses continue to stay on the defensive against criminals.
In January, Billings police had received more than 100 reports of stolen catalytic converters from vehicles in a span of six months. Five months later those reports are significantly down.
“But our data and our stats now for the last three months between January and the end of March show only 17 incidents,” said Lt. Brandon Wooley of the Billings Police Department. “(It’s) decreased compared to the prior six months,” he said.
And here’s what he says is the reason why: “A really good example of officers on the streets doing police work,” he said. “Interviewing people, talking to others, and just having the general knowledge of what's going on in the community.”
Wooley says there’s a criminal case for review currently before the county attorney.
“They know that the gig is up at that point. They know that law enforcement (is) onto them. They know that we may be watching them. If they continue to do it, they know that they have been caught, to a certain extent,” he said.
But victims have already been impacted, in the worst way, with some reporting thousands of dollars in damages to their vehicles after thieves sawed off a catalytic converter in as little as two minutes. Sometimes in broad daylight. Sometimes just feet away.
“I got a call from my wife saying something is wrong with the car,” said Great Falls resident David Murray. Murray and his family were recently visiting Billings for a family trip. But he says their memorable Easter weekend was cut short in a matter of minutes.
Just feet from where they were staying in their hotel room thieves almost got away with their catalytic converter. “It's really loud, and it sounded like jet aircraft is the way my teenage son described it,” he said.
“She had crawled underneath the vehicle to look at the exhaust system and found that it had been cut,” he said. “The first emotion is disbelief. The second is anger.”
The thieves could have been scared off or maybe didn’t get a good handle on the converter. Either way, Murray says, they just cut the pipe leaving it hanging from underneath their car. “The exhaust system was kind of hanging there,” he said. “And it was very loud, and I really have no idea that this was even an item to be concerned about.”
It's an item that concerns those in the business of recycling in Montana and other states.
J.L., who works for Natural Ventures, a recycler in Salt Lake City, Utah, is lending some insight into the inner workings of the business and why catalytic converters are such a hot commodity. “I've been doing this for 10 years and I've never seen the market as high as it is today,” he said.
Emissions standards are getting stricter and the precious metals of platinum, palladium, and rhodium found inside a converter are needed more than ever - so needed, in fact, that the going current rate for an ounce of rhodium is $29,000.
J.L. works with businesses in Montana where the converters are shipped out of state to Natural Ventures, un-canned, and the metals are sent to a smelter in another part of the country. “There's more value to the industry that we're in than there was five years ago,” he said.
But the industry operates tightly with an ethical business feeling a negative impact from bad players. He says they turn away business all the time if the situation doesn’t feel right because ultimately it's them who suffer.
“The person who had those converters stolen off their vehicles, they were made whole by the insurance company. The exhaust shop who may have a major replacement, they made their buck putting a new converter on,” said J.L. “Everybody was made whole in this situation, except for us.”
He says in Montana there’s no auto recycling association that could help manage regulations to benefit both consumers and those in the industry and ultimately keep thefts of catalytic converters off the streets.
“Based on the protocol that we take, they decide to take their business elsewhere. And because they know that they're not going to get any money from us for their material,” he said.
And while added protocols and practice are put in place regularly, he admits Natural Ventures along with other recyclers are having to constantly change based on the pressure of the crime.
Montana law requires a salvage metal dealer to record the time and date of the transaction, scan a copy of an ID and get a license plate number and signature of the seller, among a few other things.
By comparison, a handful of states, including West Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, Oregon, North Carolina, Nevada, Michigan, Louisiana, Kansas, Florida, California, Arkansas, and Arizona, require a fingerprint from the seller.
And in most states, like Utah, where Natural Ventures is located, there’s a hold on the item to make sure it’s not stolen.
That's something not required in Montana, and this past legislative session Montana lawmakers did not move any legislation to alter recycling laws, according to research provided by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries which tracks recycling laws along with providing advocacy and education.
But work to combat the catalytic converter theft epidemic is being done on the streets by the Billings Street Crimes Division.
“Types of tools cut marks, understanding the pipeline to the process of what makes it attractive to steal this type of stuff,” said Wooley. “Suspects are still contacted, they're still read Miranda, they're still interviewed, they're still dealt with on that.”
In Murray's case, the near theft still cost him a hundred dollars to fix.
“And I did speak with Lt. Wooley and he informed me what has been an ongoing problem in the Billings area for several months,” he said.
He even did his own research in Great Falls to see if the theft of catalytic converters was also trending in that city.
Wooley maintains that personal awareness is key to protecting your property and shielding off crime, and he knows that as easy as this bizarre crime can appear, it can also re-appear depending on industry trends.
“There's going to be trends, and we see things come and go in cycles,” he said.