In less than a minute a thief can slip under a vehicle and steal a catalytic converter worth $75-$400 at a scrap dealer, depending on the vehicle.

That's not small change, but it's the scrap dealers who are making the big money in the world of catalytic converter recycling. It's not the metal scrap from the converters that make them so valuable, it's the precious metals they contain: platinum, palladium and rhodium.

Typically, the scrap dealers remove the "guts" of the converters and send the cores overseas, where the precious metals are extracted. Catalytic converters differ greatly in size, depending on vehicle make, age and model, but the smallest of them may contain one-quarter ounce of platinum.

And at the close of business Monday on the New York Stock Exchange, platinum was valued at $1,330 per ounce; more than gold, which closed at $1,204. Palladium closed at $698 per ounce.

Those numbers didn't surprise Pete Carmean, who with Ray Kramer, owns Stoves 'N Stuff, Tamaqua, one of three local businesses hit by catalytic converter thieves Dec. 10. Other victims were Seitz Brothers, Hometown (three vehicles), and All American Jeep, Chrystler, Dodge, Tamaqua (11 vehicles).

A professional job

A battery-operated reciprocating saw is all it takes.

"Just the nature of how it was accomplished, it must have been a professional crew," Carmean said. "There were a number of vehicles parked here, and they knew what they wanted."

Carmean said that four company vehicles, trucks and vans, were parked next to each other overnight. The thieves took the catalytic converters from the three Ford vehicles, and skipped the Chevrolet.

"So they may have gotten a few hundred dollars from the three converters, but our cost to replace them was about $2,700," Carmean said. "Plus our insurance company looked at it as three separate incidents, so we had to pay the deductible on each one."

The cost trickled down to Stoves 'N Stuff customers, who had to wait a couple days for service on their stoves.

"Most of our customers rely on their stoves as an alternative heat source, to save money," Carmean said. "So they had to wait and rely on oil furnaces or electricity until we could get the vehicles repaired."

The Stoves 'N Stuff incident was typical of catalytic converter theft: thieves target SUVs and pickup trucks, which have more clearance underneath than smaller passenger vehicles. Thieves can slide under them and still have room to operate a saw; to steal one from a passenger vehicle, they'd have to jack it up, possibly activating an alarm.

Lucrative business

Scrap dealers and recyclers, according to Pennsylvania law, are required to check out deliveries and only buy scrap from people who own a car dealership, garage or salvage yard. Additionally, salvage yard owners must have a permit to operate as a Junkyard, Automotive Dismantler and Recycler, issued from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, through one of seven district engineering offices.

Recycling catalytic converters for metal scrap and precious metals can be a legitimate business, lucrative and environmentally responsible and it's a shame that thieves are casting it in a bad light, said Savannah Heiser, Susquehanna Recyclers, Harrisburg.

"There are many different grades of catalytic converters, according to the age and size, for example, and we send them overseas for the metal to be extracted," Heiser said. "We only buy from people who can present a copy of their business license and we get photo I.D. and license plates."

The outside of the catalytic converter is also recycled, and may be refurbished and resold as "reconditioned," she added. When a vehicle has to be salvaged, the catalytic converter is one of its most valuable parts, she pointed out.

What you can do

So what steps can average people take to make sure thieves don't steal their valuable catalytic converters? Vehicle owners can do their best to avoid leaving their vehicle after dark in large lots, such as commuter lots, company parking lots and shopping center lots, according to Nationwide Insurance, which created a fact page on the matter.

Other measures include adding or enhancing a vehicle security system. Most newer vehicles have a system which reacts when a door or window is compromised; however, a security system may not activate because something is cut from underneath the vehicle. A top-of-the-line system will trigger at the slightest motion.

Vehicle owners can opt to have the catalytic converter secured to the vehicle frame by welding a piece of hardened steel between the two. However, if the exhaust system ever needs to be repaired, an auto repair shop will have to cut the converter off with a torch.

Carmean from Stoves 'N Stuff had one other piece of advice.

"About a week before it happened, we think they were here, kind of casing it out," Carmean said. "We didn't think much about it then, but of course we do now."

"People shouldn't hesitate to report any suspicious people or vehicles," he added. "These people obviously had a plan, and knew what was worth taking."