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Catalytic converter thefts continue in Champaign-Urbana. Who is buying the stolen parts is a mystery

The photo shows a gray car and a blue car, with a university sports stadium in the background.
Located near the tailpipe, catalytic converters help vehicles turn engine emissions into less harmful gases.

CHAMPAIGN — Catalytic converters keep disappearing from Champaign-Urbana cars. The University of Illinois Police Department has already reported seven catalytic converter thefts in 2022.

Why someone would steal them, though, is a bit of a mystery for local law enforcement.

The metals in the devices are precious, for sure. Palladium, for example, fluctuated in value last year between $2,000 per troy ounce and $3,000, according to Bloomberg.

But how are thieves turning the auto part into cash?

Scrap yards are wary of taking catalytic converters. And there’s no evidence yet of a local black market, according to University of Illinois Police Department spokesperson Patrick Wade.

“In Champaign-Urbana, if you take it to a scrap yard, you can get maybe $10 or $20 for a catalytic converter, so [the value] is not very high,” Wade says.

Scrap yards out of town offer more — $50 or $60, Wade estimates.

Mervis Recycling in Urbana (part of Danville-based Mervis Industries) confirmed that catalytic converter prices start around $10 but vary widely. Mervis requires proof of ownership, though, and keeps both paper and digital versions of the documentation.

One pandemic-long spike

Traffic is constant at the intersection of First Street and Kirby Avenue in Champaign. That didn’t deter someone from cutting a catalytic converter off a car in this parking lot two weeks ago. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

Spikes in catalytic converter thefts happen every few years nationwide, usually as the value of the raw metals goes up.

This spike began during the COVID-19 pandemic. It has continued longer than any other Wade has seen in his eight years with the university police.

In 2021, at least 59 people in Champaign-Urbana lost catalytic converters to theft, according to the Champaign and University of Illinois police departments.

While the local scrap market value for catalytic converters isn’t much, the cost to repair victims’ cars runs in the thousands.

Wade suggests those worried about their own catalytic converters focus on where they park.

“If you’re fortunate enough to have a garage or somewhere you can keep your car indoors, that’s the best option,” Wade says.

The second best option is to park in a well-lit area, he says.

Champaign Police Department spokesperson Thomas Yelich suggests purchasing a catalytic converter anti-theft device or changing your car security settings.

“If you have a security system on your car, calibrate it so vibration sets it off – the act of sawing off a catalytic converter will trigger the alarm,” Yelich says.

Both spokesmen ask locals to call 911 if they see a crime in progress – like someone using power tools under a parked car.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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