SEATTLE — Tow truck driver Edgar Plata spent most of a recent Monday as he often does these days, picking up the pieces after a spree of catalytic converter thefts.
By the time he pulled up to my North Seattle home to tow my newly converter-less Honda, Plata, who works for Viking Towing, had already hauled off two vehicles with similarly violated exhaust systems.
"It's out of control," says Plata, 44, of the plague of thefts that now afflicts every community in the Seattle area — a plague that, in his view, can only get worse, given its very attractive economics.
A stolen catalytic converter can fetch hundreds of dollars on the local black market, thanks to the platinum and other rare metals found inside. In just a few days, an experienced thief with a reciprocating saw and a set of cheap car jacks can "make thousands," says Plata, whose own converter was converted into quick cash by a thief a few years ago. "It's a big business," he says. "Supply and demand."
Just so. To lose your catalytic converter these days is to be a temporary supplier to a large, well-financed underground enterprise.
So far this year, some 2,500 catalytic converters have been reported stolen in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, up from a total of 41 in 2019, when thieves started getting serious about catalytic converters, or "cats," and on pace to surpass 2021.
Such growth isn't surprising, given current prices for the metals used in the catalytic process: Platinum, for example, sells for $928 an ounce, palladium $1,884 and rhodium $14,000. At the street level, that means a stolen cat can fetch $1,000 or more, depending on the model. Few other stealable goods promise such profit for so little labor or legal risk.
Thieves "have it down to a science," says Gary Ernsdorff, a senior King County prosecutor who heads up cat theft investigations. "They go shoplift a sawzall from a big box store and can make $500 in a very, very [short] amount of time with, frankly, pretty low odds of being caught."
Those relatively easy profits have spurred more frequent, more brazen thefts. Where thieves, also known as "cutters" or "boosters," once mainly hit Toyota Priuses, they now case neighborhoods, parking lots and even car dealerships and government fleet yards for everything from Toyota Tundras and Honda Elements to Ford F-250 pickups.
(And, sadly, early 2000s Honda CR-Vs, which, as Plata tells me, have enough ground clearance that thieves "don't have to use a jack — they can just crawl under.")