‘They're Gone in 20 Seconds': Catalytic Converter Thefts Skyrocket in DC Over 3 Years

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D.C. saw a massive spike in catalytic converter thefts during the pandemic and last year. It's a crime that literally takes seconds and is hard to crack.

Now, there’s a clearer picture of just how many people have been hit in the nation's capital with no arrests in the cases.

When Brian Nelson bought his Northeast home, little did he know that the street parking he was lucky to get would also make him a target.

"I just remember coming home from one morning from a client call and there was no Prius in front of the house," Nelson said.

His 2007 Prius with 165,000 miles on it had been stolen. It was recovered days later in Maryland missing one thing: the catalytic converter.

"I had to go pick it up in Prince George's County and drive it home. Basically, I had my ears plugged while I'm driving because it was making so much noise," he said.

The I-Team found that awful noise is one hundreds of drivers around the D.C. region have experienced, as reported in November.

Andy Cohen runs a Maryland recycling facility near D.C. and knows the value of those parts.

"People do call me all the time and say, 'Hey, would you like to buy our converters from us? We have, you know, 20 of them. Will you give us some money for them?'" he said. "It's illegal for you to do, so, I won't do it."

Cohen said he started noticing the theft trend in the past few years.

"I'm going to say, in the past three years, the prices of the precious metals have gone up, which in turn has created the theft of the converters, because that's what's in them," said Cohen.

That's what the I-Team found when analyzing theft data from D.C. police since 2019.

Just two were reported that year.

Thefts rose to 28 in 2020, then 238 in 2021.

There had been almost 300 in D.C. in 2022 as of October.

"This is a citywide problem," said Capt. Jeffrey Kopp with the Criminal Investigations Division. He said no area is immune to the crime trend, but there are hot spots.

"They are more predominantly concentrated in, like, our northern and northeastern areas of the city, like along Eastern Avenue where we border Prince George's County in the far north of D.C.," he said.

The I-Team found the dog days of summer also heated up the thefts with 21 reported incidents over just two days in August.

Kopp said his detectives are working to track the stolen parts, likely sold to questionable mechanics or salvage yards interested in the precious metals inside the converters.

"Trying to track down exactly where they're going has proven difficult,” he said. “Imagine how many salvage yards are in this area. And who's to say that the criminals are even staying here in the D.C. area?"

That's why his unit also works with outside agencies also seeing a spike.

"We've been working very closely with our regional partners as well as our federal partners on this to try to develop any nexus that we can between any suspects that have been arrested. And so far in the D.C. cases, we have not made any arrests," Kopp said.

At Cohen's business, he won't even leave any vehicles outside on the streets overnight for fear of them being hit.

"This is a very difficult crime to crack down on," he said.

Which Nelson found out after the first theft of his catalytic converter. Just three weeks after he had his catalytic converter replaced, it was stolen again. That time, he didn't get the car back.

"They're gone in 20 seconds," he said.

To protect yourself, police say park in a well-lit area to discourage thieves. Also, install a car alarm and security cameras where you park.

Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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