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The strange Mass. crime wave over catalytic converters and the bill aiming to curb theft

Catalytic converters, like one seen here in Richmond, Va., are being stolen across Massachusetts.Steve Helber/Associated Press

Earlier this month, staff at the Hebron Food Pantry in Attleboro were gearing up for a trip to the Greater Boston Food Bank, set to haul back thousands of pounds of food for over 300 families. A volunteer, ready to make the journey in the pantry’s box truck, put the key in the ignition, and the exhaust roared and sputtered.

“It was the loudest noise he ever heard,” Heather Porreca, the pantry’s vice president, said. “The catalytic converter had been cut right off the truck.”

Catalytic converters, a pollutant-reducing device that’s in nearly every modern car, have become catnip for car thieves across Massachusetts, as sky-high metal prices have led to a huge payday for the pilfered part.

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In Cambridge alone, Police Department spokesperson Jeremy Warnick said police get a call over a missing converter just about every day.

Police Lieutenant John Soules said some Pittsfield businesses have suffered thefts “multiple nights in a row,” an “astounding” rate.

Enter: the state Legislature.

Representative Steven Howitt, a Republican from Seekonk, has led a bipartisan push to curb these thefts. And with its momentum, his bill just might become law before the State House breaks for summer recess.

This type of theft is notoriously hard to track. With a reciprocating saw, a thief can crawl under a car, cut off the converter, and split in under 10 minutes. Catalytic converters are rarely etched with markings matching them to the vehicle they belong to, stumping police investigators as to whose converter went where, even when the thieves get busted.

“If we were to pursue a scrapyard, there’s no evidence to indicate that they knew they knowingly purchased the stolen catalytic converter,” Warnick said.

According to Howitt, the measure establishes a “chain of custody” for converters.

The provision would create a paper trail for someone looking to offload a catalytic converter with its pricey precious metal components. Scrap metal buyers could only pay for catalytic converters via check and would have to keep a transaction logbook recording identifying information about each seller. Sellers would also have to prove their legal ownership of the converter.

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“You’ve created a situation where the person who stole it is no longer able to take cash and go anonymously,” Howitt said of the bill.

Precious metals used in systems that reduce tailpipe emissions have hit historic highs in the market, according to metals market expert Nick Jonson at S&P Global Commodity Insights. Because of stronger emissions standards in Europe and China, demand for the metals has jumped in the last few years. But supply is hampered too: Russia — which harvests much of the world’s precious metals — is economically cut off from the West due to its invasion of Ukraine.

Howitt filed the bill late in the session, realizing it was an issue across his district, and a personal one, too: his own pickup truck is missing its converter. Replacing a catalytic converter can lead to steep repair charges, typically upwards of $1,000. And driving without one, on most modern cars, is illegal.

Howitt admitted that his bill is more a deterrent than a shutdown measure against theft, but it might force thieves out of the Commonwealth to sell their stolen wares, he argued.

“They’d have to either ship out the catalytic converters, or else they have to travel a distance,” Howitt said of the thieves. “It doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, but it will make it more difficult.”

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The bill also does not include language regulating the informal, online sales of catalytic converters. A quick search on Facebook Marketplace shows dozens of converters listed from individual sellers around the state, many of whom take cash.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont signed a similar bill into law last month. Rhode Island’s Legislature is also considering a bill to clamp down on catalytic converter thefts. On Beacon Hill, the legislation has moved quickly through legislative committees and could now be on the precipice of a vote in the House.

“I don’t know of anybody who thinks it’s a bad idea,” said Representative Patricia Haddad, a Somerset Democrat who co-sponsored the bill. “Small businesses don’t need to lose their trucks.”

Eric Euell, who runs a Seekonk garage door company, had two trucks’ converters stolen the evening of June 12. He has since had one replaced, but every morning he warily glances over and checks that it’s still in the undercarriage.

Euell sprayed the new converter a bright pink, just for an additional layer of deterrent and for spot checking.

“Any legit buyer of catalytic converters will not buy it,” he said of his newly pink converter. “They need to go after the people that are buying them and hold them accountable.”

And he is right; many licensed scrapyards don’t want one-off converters. Second Street Iron & Metal Co. in Everett, for example, has stopped buying catalytic converters altogether because of theft concerns. Matthew Applebaum of Framingham Salvage said the bill wouldn’t add a layer of red tape: his scrapyard and others already record the IDs of sellers and the provenance of catalytic converters.

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Applebaum said he isn’t comfortable buying catalytic converters from individuals anymore — just reputable companies.

“We did before there was a huge epidemic, if you will, on these,” Applebaum said. “The only time we would take them from an individual is if somebody comes in, they tell us the year, make, and model — they prove that it’s their car.”

Applebaum was skeptical that mandating check payments for converters would be a sufficient deterrent. But the recordkeeping mandated by the bill is something he thinks many scrap buyers already do. As long as the string of thefts continues, his industry will have a bad name, he said.

In the meantime, Hebron Food Pantry has replaced the truck’s missing converter to the tune of over $1,000 in parts and labor. They requested that the mechanic put a shield over the converter to prevent another theft — another $1,000.

On a shoestring budget driven by donations, Porreca, the pantry’s vice president, said the repair set them significantly back. Now they wait, anxiously, until the converter guard is installed.

“We’re just holding our breath coming into the pantry every day, hoping that it’s still there,” she said.


Simon Levien can be reached at simon.levien@globe.com. Follow him on twiitter @simonjlevien.