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Federal Way: A new target for thieves — car parts

Automobile burglaries are nothing new and neither is metal theft. Federal Way thieves have found a way to combine the two crimes.

In the past weeks, automotive parts, especially catalytic converters, have been stolen from vehicles parked in public and private locations. Recent laws have made it harder for thieves to profit from stolen auto parts, but if the thief can find a buyer, catalytic converters can be profitable property. They contain trace amounts of metals.

By law, most motor vehicles are required to feature a catalytic converter. The part was introduced in 1975 as a way to reduce automobile emissions. To thieves, it is more than just a pollutant reducer. The piece is money in the bank. Catalytic concerters contain platinum, palladium, rhodium, nickel and several other metals that can be sold for cash. A catalytic converter on the black market can go for up to $200, according to a recent MSNBC article.

The part garners at least $50 from scrap metal yards, Dean Lilly, manager of Federal Way’s Walt’s Radiator and Muffler, said. Lilly has worked in the automotive business for 15 years. But catalytic converter theft is something new to him.

“This is the first year I have ever seen this done,” he said.

His shop replaces about five converters per week, Lilly said. Any vehicle that comes in for a replacement of the part is documented, he said. Other local automotive shops are seeing the increase as well.

Greg’s Japanese Auto has replaced two converters in the past month, manager J.C. Appelberg said. In both instances, the part had been stolen, he said. Appelberg has been in the business for seven years and has not noticed this kind of theft until this year, he said.

If not tampered with, a catalytic converter will usually last the lifetime of a vehicle, Merle Pfeifer, owner of Sparks Car Care, said. Victims of this theft will not be able to overlook the absent part, he said.

“You can’t miss it if it happens,” Pfeifer said. “You’ll wonder what in the world (is causing the loud sound).”

Victims may also be left to wonder how they will afford a new part. A catalytic converter can cost between $250 and $800, Lilly said. Some vehicles feature two of the devices. Other vehicles require a certain type of converter that cannot be welded on, Appelberg said. These cost more to replace.

As the crime becomes more popular, state legislators are taking notice. In 2007, the legislature unanimously passed House Bill 1251. It requires scrap metal suppliers, producers and recycle yards to collect from customers a name, address, and a written declaration that the metals are not stolen. Photo identification is also required.

The bill requires scrap metal dealers to report goods they believe may have been stolen. It also helps prevent possible thieves from profiting from the stolen materials by making them wait 30 days to be paid by check.

“It used to be you could just take scrap metal in and get cash-in-hand the day of transaction,” Pfeifer said.

The law helped crack down on theft of wire and construction materials, but did little to prevent the theft of automotive parts.

House Bill 2858 was passed this past March. It expands upon the 2007 bill to include automotive parts and specifically catalytic convertors. It went into affect June 12. Scrap metal recycling yards are now required to ask for a business license and card from the person soliciting the sale of a catalytic converter, Pfeifer said.

Trucks, specifically Toyotas, and SUVs are prime targets for this type of theft because of their elevated carriages. The only thing a person can do in an effort to avoid being a victim of this crime is to park vehicles in a garage or another locked facility, Appelberg said.

Contact Jacinda Howard at: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Check it out:

On July 18 a catalytic converter was stolen from a vehicle parked at the Transit Center, according to a police report. On July 23 a muffler, catalytic converter and oxygen sensors, were stolen off a truck parked at Wild Waves, according to another police report. On July 24, a catalytic converter was stolen from a vehicle in the 31200 block of 28th Ave. S., according to a third police report.

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