YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Jeff Bartholomew is fed up.
He says his business on South Avenue is out $18,000 after the latest round of catalytic converter thefts.
The thief is brazen.
“They cut a hole in the fence. Come right through. Go right to the car, Sawzall it off,” he said. “The last two times, the guy had a gun right in his hand. So they’re not scared or nothing.”
He’s quick, too.
“We got it on film. In 3 minutes, they’re in and out. They can get two converters,” he said.
Bartholomew owns Pro Team Auto Sales, and while his business has been hit by thefts recently, it’s not the only one. Further down the street, another business owner reported similar crimes and both feel that not much is being done about the situation.
In his latest report to police, Bartholomew stated that nine catalytic converters were taken from vehicles in the lot, costing him about $3,500 in repairs. He added that he’s made several insurance claims already and was worried about being dropped by his carrier as a result.
The fence behind the business is now wrapped in barbed wire, and several holes that have been cut in the fence are patched. But even a surveillance camera hasn’t stopped the thefts.
There’s a reason for the risk. The value of the converters has increased due to the rising cost of the precious metals that they’re made from.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, catalytic converter thefts have seen a significant increase across the country since March 2020, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the values of rhodium, palladium and platinum have continued to rise.
Ohio Representative Bob Young (R-Green) has witnessed this firsthand at his own business and says more needs to be done. He is pushing legislation — House Bill 408 — which he believes will make it more difficult for thieves to sell the converters.
Young said because of loopholes in the state’s laws, scrapyards and metal recyclers are buying these stolen catalytic converters, and it’s perfectly legal.
“I don’t want to say that these businesses are knowingly doing this, but they’re legally doing it. And it’s a real problem,” he said.
Currently, a person can sell one catalytic converter to a scrapyard each day. But, any business or registered LLC can sell as many as they want, and that’s how he says thieves get around the law.
“Some of these guys get really organized. If you’ve got one guy that’ll buy them, buy the converters, he’ll set up a little crew, with tools, and say, ‘This is your area that you work. This is your area over here,'” Young said.
Last month, police in Franklin County announced the end of a multimillion-dollar theft ring of catalytic converters. Around 13,000 converters were stolen, and six suspects were involved in the ring, according to prosecutors.
Young’s bill, if passed, aims to crack down on this by requiring recyclers to get proof of ownership from each seller prior to buying the converters. Those businesses would face a $10,000 to $50,000 fine if they violated this rule.
That proof of ownership could include a bill of sale for any repairs done in which the catalytic converter was replaced, a registration to the vehicle that it came from, or a title to that vehicle.
Young said this should help deter thieves, but one business owner said he doesn’t think it will help and will actually hurt legitimate businesses.
Rebel Mead is president of operations at Kanect Recycling, which operates scrap recycling in Ashtabula, Ohio and Greenville, Pennsylvania. There is also a location that he says will open soon in Warren.
He believes that if House Bill 408 passes, it will actually have a negative effect on businesses like his, and will drive people to sell to unscrupulous dealers.
“The new laws are just simply going to deter the public, or thieves, or anybody from selling converters to us legitimate companies in which we are actually documenting and following the laws,” Mead said. “We’re part of the solution.”
Mead said legitimate scrap companies have to keep paperwork for their transactions. Further restrictions — in addition to the laws that already restrict people from selling multiple converters to a business — will push people to sell to those who don’t keep a paper trail, he said.
“That shows how these laws that are targeting legitimate companies are going to continue to hurt legitimate companies, where it takes you to the point where it’s like, ‘Being legitimate might not be the way to go if they’re going to continue that. Maybe these guys have it right by buying it wrong.'”
He suggested that a task force to focus on these crimes would work better.
“I think there are current laws in place that already would solve the problem. I think our issue falls in the enforcement end where there’s maybe not enough funds to actually push a task force, or to have enough officers to enforce the current laws,” he said.
Boardman police Detective Chad Doran, who investigates these crimes, has noticed the spike in the thefts more recently. He used to investigate three or four over the summer, now, it’s frequently.
Doran investigated thefts at two businesses in a three-day span. According to police reports, thieves cut two catalytic converters off company vehicles at an automotive business on Lake Park Road and also from trucks at a moving company on South Avenue.
Youngstown police Capt. Jason Simon said there are challenges to investigating these crimes, as the thieves can work quite quickly.
“Folks tend to get frustrated if they don’t see, you know, an arrest right away, however, what I can say is that we do make a lot of arrests, but it depends on identification,” he said. “We can have a great camera angle and great lighting, but it comes down to figuring out who the person is.”
Doran said it’s hard to target one group or business because many individuals are involved in the thefts or illegal sales of the items. Some people even exchange catalytic converters for drugs with their dealers.
The investigators say the best way to protect yourself is to make it harder for the thieves to get what they came for, such as parking in well-lit areas with surveillance cameras and parking in an area that makes it harder for someone to get underneath a car. Simon adds if you do see something suspicious, report it to police.