PROVIDENCE — For a while, it seemed you couldn’t go a week without hearing a news report about thieves stealing catalytic converters, a pricey part of a vehicle’s exhaust system.
Criminals seeking cash for the valuable precious metals were stealing the parts from cars parked in driveways, city highway departments, and in public parking lots in broad daylight. The speed with which the parts could be stolen made it difficult for police to catch criminals in the act, and at least one Warwick businessman took matters into his own hands in 2022 by putting an Apple AirTag in his truck’s converter, then tracking the thief to a nearby gas station.
But thefts of the expensive car part have plummeted over the past year in the Providence metro area, which was hard-hit during the height of the problem in 2021 and 2022.
Law enforcement officials attribute the precipitous drop to new laws targeting scrap metal dealers, efforts by detectives to catch the thieves, and significant local and national attention on the problem.
In Providence, the crime has decreased eight-fold in the past year. There were 631 reports of stolen catalytic converters in 2022, according to data provided by the police department. That number dropped to just 73 thefts reported in 2023. (Each reported theft could include multiple converters.)
Colonel Oscar Perez, the Providence police chief, attributed the drop in part to the new state law holding scrap metal businesses accountable for ensuring the parts they purchase aren’t stolen.
“Now, when someone steals a catalytic converter and goes to try and sell it, they have to provide documentation,” Perez said in an interview with the Globe and Rhode Island PBS slated to air this Sunday. “But it’s also the collaboration between different federal agencies and municipalities,” including detectives who proactively went after frequent offenders.
“The fact that we stepped up to stay on top of that has minimized and lowered those numbers,” Perez said.
Providence also passed its own ordinance in 2022 requiring even more documentation than the state law, and put businesses on notice. The FBI raided a scrap metal dealer on Branch Avenue in early 2023, with agents captured by TV news cameras hauling out boxes full of converters. (An FBI spokesperson declined to comment this week on the ongoing investigation.)
Catalytic converters contain precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, which why thieves have been attracted to them.
Catalytic converter thefts also dropped in Cranston, Warwick, and Pawtucket, Rhode Island’s next-largest cities after Providence. Cranston Police Chief Michael Winquist said his department hasn’t had a converter theft reported since August. The numbers dropped from 108 thefts reported in Cranston in 2022 to 28 in 2023.
“If the criminals do not have a mechanism to convert the stolen items to cash, they move on to other crimes, and I believe that is the case here in Rhode Island,” Winquist said.
In Pawtucket, the numbers also plummeted 80 percent from 282 thefts in 2022 to just 57 last year, according to Chief Tina Goncalves.
In Warwick, the thefts dropped 69 percent from 120 in 2022 to 37 last year.
Warwick State Representative Joseph Solomon, who sponsored the Rhode Island law, said he was glad to see that increased awareness and enforcement has had an effect.
“Clearly what’s being done is working, and we can’t let our guard down,” Solomon said.
Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office is responsible for licensing and regulating Rhode Island scrap metal dealers, and enforcing the new law. The office initially had to upgrade its computer systems in order to track the newly-required information, including the VIN from the vehicle from which the catalytic converter was taken.
Investigators then proactively started inspecting businesses, according to spokesperson Brian Hodge. He said an undercover inspector from the AG’s office recently tried to sell a converter at a salvage yard, only to be told by an employee they couldn’t purchase it because state officials were keeping an eye on them.
“Our [Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation] investigators have been conducting both announced and unannounced inspections of salvage yards as well as conducting undercover operations in coordination with local law enforcement partners to ensure full compliance,” Hodge said. “These inspections and operations are intended to ensure that these business are fully aware of, and comply with, the legal requirements.” He said the “vast majority” of businesses were in compliance when inspected over the last several months.
Federal authorities have also initiated takedowns of catalytic converter theft rings spanning multiple states.
The drop in catalytic converter thefts in Rhode Island matches national trends, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks insurance claims.
While insurance data for the final quarter of 2023 is not yet available, the NICB reported 24,000 insurance claims for stolen catalytic converters nationwide in the first three quarters of the year, compared to more than 64,000 the year before.
The NICB data showed a drop in converter theft claims in almost every state, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, the NICB said there were 157 insurance claims for stolen catalytic converters in 2022, compared to 32 in the first three quarters of 2023. In Massachusetts, there were 888 claims in 2022, compared to 162 in the first three quarters of 2023.
Massachusetts passed its own law cracking down on converter thefts in January 2023.
The NICB numbers are lower than the police statistics because many people do not make insurance claims and just pay for the repairs themselves, spokesperson Joseph Brenckle noted. He said the downward trend continued in the final quarter of 2023.
Providence’s drop in catalytic converter thefts contributed to a 24 percent overall decline in property crime, according to police department data. The property crime numbers had been up during the pandemic, driven in part by the converter thefts.
“It’s the proactive work of the men and women of the Providence police department,” Perez said. “We have an outstanding detective division.”
This Sunday at 7:30 on Rhode Island PBS Weekly, Colonel Oscar Perez reflects on the 2023 crime data, his first year as police chief, and his plans for the Providence Police Department.