On Tuesday, March 16, Andrew Fitch ’21 was preparing to pack up his 2001 Honda Accord, which was parked in the Laird Stadium Parking Lot. “I had finished all my finals, so I was getting ready to drive home for spring break, and that’s when I discovered it,” he said.
Fitch was unsure what was wrong at first. “I called my uncle, he’s a mechanic. This was the day after the snowstorm too, so I was crawling around in the snow, trying to get photos. And eventually I found a piece of metal under the car that looked like it had been cut.” He also noticed a loud revving noise when the vehicle was started.
The cause: underneath the car, the catalytic converter, an exhaust emissions-control device, had been stolen. The removal can take less than a minute and the precious metals it contains—platinum, palladium and rhodium—are often sold for up to $2,500 an ounce, fueling a black market in stolen car parts.
This theft was just one of a slew of recent incidents. A March 17 Security Alert notified campus that “[o]ver the last two weeks, Carleton students have reported six incidents of theft or attempted theft of catalytic converters from vehicles.” Since then, Director of Security and Emergency Management John Bermel said they received one additional report on March 19.
Fitch took his vehicle down to Valley Autohaus in Northfield, since they were in network for his insurance. “You’re still able to drive cars after their catalytic converters have been stolen, you just have to be careful, you don’t want to drive on the freeway or drive it that fast,” he said.
The replacement took two days and, except for the deductible, the $2,400 cost was covered by insurance. Chris Eschen at Valley Autohaus said that in the last couple of months they have replaced around ten converters. “I think all but one have been Toyota Priuses,” he added.
Toyota Priuses are targeted because, as hybrid vehicles, their converters are used less frequently to process pollutants, meaning they are less likely to corrode, therefore retaining the precious metals’ value. Bermel added that Hondas are also frequent targets because their converters are “easy to access” and “less worn out.”
Using their video system, Carleton Security Services identified a “black four-door vehicle” around 3 a.m. the Monday night before Fitch and others found their converters stolen. Currently, officers are “working closely with Northfield Police on these thefts” and “conducting focused patrols of our parking lots.”
The larger issue that remains to be solved: there is a market for precious metals, and catalytic converters are in high demand. The numbers of swiped catalytic converters have also been rising in the Twin Cities and around the country. As of March 23, St. Paul has had nearly 500 thefts and Minneapolis nearly 400 since the start of 2021, double what was recorded at the same time last year.
Northfield Chief of Police Chris Elliott said that “currently there’s a bill in the [State] legislature, Senate File 890, that puts more restrictions on scrap metal purchasers.” The bill, introduced on March 26, would make it illegal for scrap metal dealers to purchase from anyone besides a bona fide automobile repair shop, automobile recycling facility or other person who can provide evidence of legitimate removal – thereby taking stolen converters out of the equation.
If you suspect that your catalytic converter has been tampered with or stolen, or notice suspicious individuals, you can help by reporting it to Security Services (507-222-4444) or the Northfield Police (911).