A little over a week ago, a customer came into Jose Cruz’s auto shop to have the tires of his Land Rover Discovery realigned.
Cruz, who owns Fieldston Automotive Shop at 3623 Kingsbridge Ave., parked the car next to Mavis Discount Tires across the street, where the owner lets him store vehicles he is working on. It’s a good place, Cruz said, because it’s within sight of the 50th precinct.
This time, however, he was not so fortunate.
When he returned the next day to check on the Land Rover, thieves had already made off with its catalytic converter.
And yes, you read that right: Not the stereo. Not the rims.
The catalytic converter.
While it’s not exactly the first thing someone might think about when it comes to cars, a catalytic converter is a pricey and essential part typically found under the car, behind one of the front tires. It’s responsible for converting dangerous nitrogen oxide fumes from the engine into breathable nitrogen and oxygen particles.
It’s become the part of choice for thieves, at least in the Riverdale area, as a string of cars have been hit in recent months, with the primary target the catalytic converter.
“Once they go in for the kill, it’s nothing, because they are using power tools and they’re very powerful,” Cruz said.
Last week’s theft was the third time one of Cruz’s cars had been stripped of the emissions control device in as many years. Many times, he said, thieves target cars that sit high — like SUVs, trucks and vans — and where they’re left to sit for long periods of time.
“Normally they’ll be in groups, because there will be a guy staking stuff out,” he said. “So, when the guy says go, (another thief) will be underneath and cut the catalytic converters on one, two, three” cars.
Over the past few months, catalytic converter thefts have spiked in the 50th precinct, where at least three converters were stolen in December, and two more in March. There was an issue with catalytic converter thefts a few years ago, police said, but the crime once again is rising in notoriety in the area.
Law enforcement officials have cracked down on the issue, community affairs officer Juan Ventura said, largely by investigating junkyards that buy the part.
“They got stricter on these junkyards buying them … a lot of junkyards just don’t take them anymore,” he said. “A lot of junkyards are getting investigated for what they’re buying.”
Catalytic converters are big-ticket items for criminals because they are both easy to steal and valuable. One used converter can be sold for up to $150. And because federal regulations do not allow mechanics to place an old converter into a car, they are often stripped of the valuable metals inside like gold, platinum, palladium and rhodium.
Victims usually are left to pay thousands of dollars to have their cars repaired, Cruz said, as thieves often leave behind damage to the car’s two oxygen sensors and the entire wiring system as a result.
“When they cut, they’re not thinking about the wires that are there,” he said. “Imagine if that wire is like an umbilical cord that goes to the computer of that car, and you just (expletive) up the tip.”
Many of the most recent incidents regarding catalytic converters have occurred near the service road of the Henry Hudson Parkway, where cars tend to be left unattended for long periods of time. Police have tackled the issues, Ventura said, by sending officers in unmarked vehicles to monitor high-risk areas in the hopes of catching thieves in the act. They have even made some arrests.
“These guys get tracked when they get out,” Ventura said. “Some guys still don’t learn.”
Part of the problem with catching people who steal the converters is that the parts are often sold off quickly to people who can recycle the valuable minerals inside.
“We have people that that’s what they do, they come around and they buy catalytic converters,” Cruz said. “That’s like if I come up to you and I say, ‘Can I buy a used iPhone,’ and to you it’s nothing, but I want something inside of it. So now that used iPhone for you was $50, but I just made another item and sold it for $75.”