Several years ago, a Wrentham police officer on routine patrol arrested a man using a blowtorch to cut a catalytic converter from a car at a downtown parking lot.
“He saw a light under a car,” recalled Wrentham Police Chief Bill McGrath.
That was the last time the town got hit by a catalytic converter thief.
But now, as the price of metals inside the anti-pollution devices have risen above the price of gold, thieves are at it again, this time using battery-powered saws.
“This is one of those crimes that go in cycles,” Foxboro Police Department’s Patrick Morrison said. “It’s kind of picked up.”
About a month ago, a commercial business lot in Foxboro was hit and 20 catalytic converters were stolen.
Morrison and other area investigators say the thieves appeared to be targeting large vans and pickup trucks because they are easier to climb under and have large catalytic converters.
The crimes, according to area investigators, mostly occur at businesses rather than in residential neighborhoods, and at night when the thieves can move stealthily.
In Attleboro, there have been five thefts so far this year, which police crime analyst Anthony Stevens suspects will outpace the 11 reported in 2020.
Stevens said the figures could be higher because there were auto thefts last year in which the vehicles were recovered with the catalytic converters cut off.
Stevens and Police Chief Kyle Heagney said the thieves are targeting businesses on or along Route 1 in South Attleboro. Last Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, thieves stole the catalytic converters from three pickup trucks.
In Seekonk, a police officer patrolling a motel parking lot on Route 44 where tires have been stolen from cars ended up chasing a Jeep Cherokee that sped off when the officer approached.
Three men from New York City were arrested and charged with possession of burglar’s tools.
No catalytic converters were discovered in their vehicle, but police say they found the tools of the trade: two battery-powered saws, extra saw blades, plastic gloves and a car jack.
Investigators say like tire and rim thieves, criminals targeting catalytic converters do not operate alone.
“They try to get in and out as fast as they can,” Morrison said.
Walpole and Sharon police have also reported thefts in the past few months.
“It’s sort of like an organized theft ring going around. The difficult part is trying to figure out which crew is responsible,” Morrison said.
Because the recent thefts have occurred during winter, any hope of a neighbor hearing noise and calling police is dashed because people stay inside with their windows closed.
In addition, police say, the thieves are bulked up in winter clothing and many are wearing masks, making them difficult to identity from video surveillance.
“You hope that someone calls it in or an alarm is set off,” North Attleboro Detective Lt. Richard McQuade said.
There have been two thefts recently in North Attleboro; one was near downtown and the other was in a restaurant parking lot on Route 1.
Going green may have criminals seeing green as stricter car emissions rules around the world have caused a surge in demand for the precious metals in catalytic converters.
As a result, prices of precious metals used in the devices, such as palladium and rhodium, have soared to record highs.
From about $500 an ounce five years ago, the price of palladium was trading Friday for $2,322 an ounce — about twice the price of gold, according to Monex, a precious metals marketplace.
The high prices are fueling a black market in stolen catalytic converters, which can be sawed off in minutes.
The devices, which are hard to trace because they lack a serial number, are either sold for several hundred dollars at a scrapyard or for the precious metals extracted from them, according to investigators.
Citing figures from a state police data base, Stevens said there were 830 scrap metal transactions in the state last year involving catalytic converters.
There were another 600 in neighboring Rhode Island and the number in both states could be higher because they are only from scrap yards reporting them, Stevens said.
The criminals come from all over, he said, recalling an incident last year in which a Worcester man was caught for shoplifting saw blades.
Although he was not caught with any catalytic converters, Stevens said, his name later turned up in a data base for the crime.
The crime is tempting because it’s easy to pull off and won’t involve any serious jail time if caught, unlike a bank robbery, Stevens said.
“It’s like organized retail theft where in two to three minutes you can run out with $10,000 worth of clothing or $2,000 worth of baby formula or razor blades,” he said.
Morrison agreed, saying that although stealing catalytic converters requires a lot of effort and some risk, criminals find the reward worth it.
If it wasn’t profitable, Morrison said, “they wouldn’t do it.”