Officials seek $545M from nationwide catalytic converter theft ring

Perhaps law enforcement is making some headway since recent analysis from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) showed catalytic converter thefts in many U.S. cities are approaching levels not seen in 14 years.

The Justice Department said this week that federal, state, and local law enforcement partners from across the United States executed a nationwide, coordinated takedown of leaders and associates of a national network of thieves, dealers, and processors for their roles in conspiracies involving stolen catalytic converters sold to a metal refinery for tens of millions of dollars.

Officials said arrests, searches, and seizures took place in California, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, and Virginia. In total, 21 individuals in five states have been arrested and/or charged for their roles in the conspiracy.

The 21 defendants are charged in two separate indictments that were unsealed today in the Eastern District of California and the Northern District of Oklahoma following extensive law enforcement arrest and search operations. In addition to the indictments, over 32 search warrants were executed, and law enforcement seized millions of dollars in assets, including homes, bank accounts, cash, and luxury vehicles.

Law enforcement is seeking forfeiture of more than $545 million in connection with this case.

“Amidst a rise in catalytic converter thefts across the country, the Justice Department has today carried out an operation arresting 21 defendants and executing 32 search warrants in a nation-wide takedown of a multimillion-dollar catalytic converter theft network,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a news release. “We will continue to work alongside our state and local partners to disrupt criminal conspiracies like this one that target the American people.”

NICB reported in September that catalytic converter thefts have increased 1,215% nationwide since 2019.

“This national network of criminals hurt victims across the country,” FBI director Christopher Wray said in the news release. “They made hundreds of millions of dollars in the process — on the backs of thousands of innocent car owners. Today’s charges showcase how the FBI and its partners act together to stop crimes that hurt all too many Americans.”

California has been hit particularly hard with these crimes. U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert for the Eastern District of California mentioned that last year approximately 1,600 catalytic converters were reportedly stolen in California each month, and California accounts for 37% of all catalytic converter theft claims nationwide.

“With California’s higher emission standards, our community has become a hot bed for catalytic converter theft,” Talbert said in the news. “I am proud to announce that we have indicted nine people who are at the core of catalytic theft in our community and nationwide.”

Officials reiterated that catalytic converters are a component of an vehicle’s exhaust device that reduce the toxic gas and pollutants from a vehicle’s internal combustion engine into safe emissions. Catalytic converters use precious metals in their center, or “core”, and are regularly targeted for theft due to the high value of these metals, especially the precious metals palladium, platinum, and rhodium.

Law enforcement acknowledged some of these precious metals are more valuable per ounce than gold and their value has been increasing in recent years. Officials said the black-market price for catalytic converters can be above $1,000 each, depending on the type of vehicle and what state it is from.

“They can be stolen in less than a minute,” officials said.

Additionally, law enforcement pointed out that catalytic converters often lack unique serial numbers, VIN information, or other distinctive identification features, making them difficult to trace to their lawful owner. Thus, the theft of catalytic converters has become increasingly popular because of their value, relative ease to steal, and their lack of identifying markings.

“The success of this national takedown highlights the importance and necessity of dynamic law enforcement partnerships that we foster at DHS every single day,” said deputy secretary John Tien of the Department of Homeland Security. “This calculated, cooperative whole-of-government approach across multiple states illustrates our commitment to protecting the homeland from those who seek to profit from sophisticated schemes. Homeland Security Investigations [HSI] will continue to focus its efforts on keeping these types of criminal elements off our streets while dismantling the groups behind these and other thefts.”

More details about the cases can be found online via this indictment and this one.

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