Precious metals, catalytic converters, and self-storage might seem like an unlikely combination, but thefts of catalytic converters are on the rise across the country, including at self-storage facilities. And that mixture has an unsavory outcome. Thieves target the converters for the increasingly valuable precious metals they contain: rhodium, palladium, platinum, and platinum-related metals.
The precious metals in the catalytic converters help reduce harmful gases in engine exhaust. Thieves can cut the converters off a vehicle in as little as a few minutes, which compounds the problem.
The ill-gotten gains can be big when calculated by the ounce. In early June, platinum was valued around $1,200 an ounce, palladium at nearly $2,900 an ounce, and rhodium at just over $22,000 an ounce, according to kitco.com.
Carol Mixon and Whitney Jurjevich are watching the problem closely. Mixon, who owns SkilCheck Services, based in Lodi, Calif., is the education chair and a director of the Arizona Self-Storage Association.
Jurjevich owns Ameripark Covered Storage, which has facilities in Tempe, Queen Creek, and Tucson, Ariz., and three more under construction in Casa Grande, Mesa, and Waddell, all in the Phoenix area. He also is a retired police officer.
Both have suffered catalytic converter thefts at their facilities. They presented a webinar about the problem in April (youtu.be/4upyBjaavyQ).
Fuel-powered vehicles manufactured after 1974 have catalytic converters. Thieves frequently target taller vehicles such as pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles because they give easier access to the converter. A vehicle without a catalytic converter is easily recognizable because it is loud and spews noxious fumes.
Thieves As Tenants
Jurjevich says self-storage tenants likely are not the catalytic converter thieves. Mixon, though, says she has proof on camera that some tenants are the culprits.
According to Mixon, some tenants rent a small space, come on site, and bring someone to the RV area to steal the catalytic converters. Tenants could store the converters in their units and remove them later, which has happened at some of her facilities. Sometimes thieves also steal items from inside RVs.
Mixon says she is “pretty aggressive” in responding to these incidents, calling the police and evicting the tenant, but that is sometimes difficult to do. She advises operators to raise the tenant’s rent and give them access only with a staff member escorting them to their unit. This can be stipulated in the rental agreement.
Regardless of who the thieves are, monitoring facilities diligently with live staff members, robust security systems, or both, are the keys to prevention. Mixon notes that the OpenTech Alliance offers technology to address the problem. Many others do, as well.
Jurjevich says hiring a private security firm would be worth the expense, while Mixon has asked local sheriffs to take their breaks at her self-storage facilities, which “really did the trick.”
Open boat and RV spaces are especially vulnerable to the thefts. Nearly every facility operator Mixon has talked to about the problem has “no idea” how many of these spaces they have in the backs of their facilities. And RV storage has seen a recent uptick.
Self-storage parking lots can be especially vulnerable to the thefts because long-term storage gives thieves more time to ply their trade. Mixon says the thefts have been occurring at her facilities and “all over the place.”
“People from all over have been contacting me about it,” she says, adding that some facility operators in California tell her thieves have been hitting their facilities for the past year. Mixon also mentions that the thefts have been occurring elsewhere for the past couple of years and have been increasing.
“Now they’re realizing self-storage properties are a hot commodity to go to,” Mixon says.
The thieves often sell the stolen goods to recyclers. Penalties would probably apply if the buyers were to knowingly accept stolen catalytic converters, “but they can’t really know,” she says. “Whatever people bring in, (recyclers) don’t ask where they got it, even a truckload of converters.”
Sometimes the thieves throw a rug over a facility’s barbed wire fence and jump it during the night, Mixon says. Cameras record the deed. “Six minutes in and out” is all the thieves need. Some rental offices are now offering insurance to cover the thefts.
Jurjevich says thefts of catalytic converters have “always ebbed and flowed for a long time.” The recent increase in precious metals’ valuations have “really driven it through the roof.”
Thieves sometimes accumulate the stolen converters in states bordering Mexico and then take them across the border unchecked, according to Jurjevich. Decreased law enforcement personnel is making detection more difficult as well.
Vigilance As A Defense
Facility operators’ vigilance is the best protection against the thefts, Jurjevich says. Newer technology systems with cameras, audio systems, and motion detectors provide more tools to do that in addition to facility managers or other employees patrolling facilities.
“There are infinite ways that people can come up with to solve this kind of problem using recent technology,” he says. “There’s no silver bullet in this. Back in the day, some guys say dogs work well, but I don’t think anybody can get away with dogs anymore.”
Ray McRae, vice president of operations and designated broker for Storage Solutions, based in the Phoenix area, pegs the increased thefts to the past eight months to a year. “Maybe a one-off unit was stolen” from some of his facilities, but nothing like the national trend.
Some recent arrests, reported by AZFamily, have lessened the number of thefts in his area recently, and “we have been vigilant about thwarting the problem.”
Storage Solutions installed cages around its trucks’ catalytic converters for extra protection after two catalytic converters were stolen from one of its trucks. It also added more cameras at its facilities and installed perimeter alarm systems to catch thieves as they breach walls or fences.
“We have been working with local law enforcement agencies,” McRae says. “The (cities) of Tempe and Mesa just recently busted up a theft ring for catalytic converters, and some of our east side stores have seen a reduction in thefts.”
Storage Solutions started selling TPP Plus from Tenant Property Protection as well. It offers limited theft coverage that includes catalytic converters and serves as a deductible reimbursement.
Jurjevich says his company also sells protection plans or damage waivers to tenants, distinct from insurance coverage, so tenants are not liable for full replacement. Protection plans have no deductible. They cover contents for specified reasons. Damage waivers and protection plans can be used to cover normal insurance deductibles.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau said in a March news release that catalytic converter thefts had jumped since March 2020, coinciding with the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“Vehicle thefts, carjackings, and break-ins are all crimes we’ve witnessed trending upward for several months, and now catalytic converter thefts are also on the rise,” David Glawe, NICB’s president and CEO, said in the release. “We have seen a significant increase during the pandemic. It’s an opportunistic crime.
“As the value of the precious metals contained within the catalytic converters continues to increase, so do the number of thefts of these devices,” Glawe said. “There is a clear connection between times of crisis, limited resources, and disruption of the supply chain that drives investors towards these precious metals.”
NICB’s Operations, Intelligence, and Analytics study of reported thefts says an average of 108 catalytic converters a month occurred in 2018, 282 a month in 2019, and 1,203 a month in 2020. California, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Illinois were the top states for thefts.
At the end of this February, 18 states (Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia) were considering legislation to address the problem.
“Removing a catalytic converter takes only minutes using some basic, readily-available, battery-operated tools from a local hardware store,” Glawe said. “And for the vehicle owner, it’s costly due to the loss of work, finding and paying for alternate transportation, and then paying anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 to get your vehicle fixed.”
The NICB’s recommendations to vehicle owners include:
- Install a catalytic converter anti-theft device, available from various manufacturers.
- Park fleet vehicles in an enclosed, well-lit, and secured area.
- Park personal vehicles in a garage or install motion-sensor security lights if parking vehicles in a driveway.
- Call local law enforcement and your insurance company if your catalytic converter is stolen.