A rash of stolen car parts mean multiple arrests and cause for consumer concern.
WVU Professor Ben Spong ventured out one sunny afternoon in January with his wife, Sarah. The couple parked near the WVU Farm Woodlot for a bit of hiking. The lot was full of other cars, and normal weekend traffic whizzed by on West Run Road. They hiked for just over an hour before returning to the car. Spong pushed the ignition button and was shocked when it sounded more like a jet engine than the reliable, predictable hum he was used to. He got out and looked around the car and wondered to himself if he’d run over something on the way or if the car was already making an unusual noise on the way there that he might have missed. Since the engine started, and they lived just a few blocks away, Spong decided to get the car home where he could take a closer look.
At home, he shimmied under the car and quickly saw the problem: Someone had cut the car’s catalytic converter out, disabling the entire exhaust system. He called the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office and reported the situation. They said they’d recently received a few similar calls.
It was the beginning of a rash of catalytic converter thefts—the Sheriff’s Office has reported responding to more than 30 such reports since the first of the year. Three suspects were arrested this week, and the Sheriff’s Office expects more to come.
Why catalytic converters, you might ask? They contain valuable elements like platinum and rhodium—one of the most rare and precious metals on Earth, currently valued around $28,000 per ounce. Each catalytic converter could hold as much as $400 worth of rhodium, depending on the current market value, and it takes a practiced thief less than two minutes to cut one out of your car with a small battery-operated saw. The higher the clearance, the better for thieving. Business fleets parked outdoors and apartment complex parking lots are jackpots. There have even been reports of converter thefts at big box stores while unsuspecting car owners shopped inside and at hospital parking lots while they met with their doctors or visited sick family members.
So, what can you do about it? Morgantown Police Chief Eric Powell says it’s hard to defend against all theft, but in general it’s a good idea to park your vehicle in a well-lit area or, if possible, in a locked garage or in view of a personal security camera. Of course, residents should report any suspicious activity to law enforcement.
What if it happens to you? For Spong, the experience was eye-opening. He learned it’s illegal to drive a vehicle with a disabled exhaust system, so his car had to be towed from his house to the repair shop. He made an insurance claim and waited weeks for the parts to come in. Add weeks of rental car fees, and the theft cost about $6,000 when it was all said and done.
The WVU Police Department, Morgantown Police Department, Westover Police Department, Star City Police Department, Mon Metro Drug Task Force, and West Virginia State Police are all investigating the catalytic converter theft trend. Anyone with information not previously reported to a law enforcement agency should contact the Monongalia County Sheriff’s Office Detective Division at 304.291.7218.