All along the Interstate 95 corridor, specialized criminals are crawling under cars, firing up electric saws and, within 30 seconds, making off with car parts containing precious metals to sell for scrap.
Since April, Darien police have been fielding complaints from commuters that the catalytic converter was stolen from their vehicles. Nine converters have been reported stolen since the end of April.
"It really hadn't been a problem in our area for the last two years," Darien Sgt. Jeremiah Marron said. "But I would say our area -- Fairfield County -- is getting hit every day in one town or another."
According to Lt. Kraig Gray, of the Greenwich Police Department, an increase in converter thefts possibly can be linked to the price of precious metals and that the frequency of the thefts "waxes and wanes."
"As salvage prices go up, so do these thefts," Gray said.
Catalytic converters have been required in all vehicles since 1975. Without the converters, vehicle engines often do not perform as well, are noticeably louder and release more polluted air into the atmosphere.
A converter is an emissions-control device that has precious metals -- platinum, palladium, rhodium -- that act as catalysts. Platinum often is used as the catalyst for the converter, which reduces nitrogen oxides to nitrogen and oxygen, and oxidizes carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and unburned hydrocarbons to carbon dioxide and water.
Since 2004, the price of an ounce of platinum has increased from an average of $845 to $1,437, according to the website of Kitco Metals, an international metal retailer. It reached its highest price in 2010 at $1,721 per ounce.
Palladium has increased from an average of $229 per ounce in 2004 to $778 per ounce in 2014, the highest price. Rhodium was priced at an average of $903 in 2004 and has since increased to $1,062 in 2014, with a peak in 2008 at an average price of $6,457.
There are only a few grams of precious metals in the converters.
The converters, Marron said, "go from $40 to $200 at scrap yards, depending on how new it is and how much of the precious metals are present."
Gray added, "This kind of theft is a very specialized type of theft."
It's not an opportunistic type of crime like stealing a purse from an unlocked car, Gray said. "These criminals specialize in these types of activity."
Wesport is experiencing similar thefts, according to Lt. Jillian Cabana.
"We happen to be having a burst right now," Cabana said. "There will be a crew out there and they'll target lots for a period of time, and either they'll get caught or they move on."
Thieves target vehicles that are higher off the ground that they can easily crawl under, such as trucks and SUVs. A majority of the converters stolen in Darien were from SUVs.
Catalytic converters range in price. One stolen in Darien was valued at $4,000, while another was only valued at $150.
A majority of the thefts in Darien have taken place in train station parking lots where criminals are able to "scout out" the cars, Gray said.
Metro-North Railroad does not investigate thefts of catalytic converters on the Connecticut side of the line because parking lots are owned by either the state or the towns or a private entity. Metro-North police officers will report damaged vehicles to local law enforcement and did for at least one Darien theft in 2014.
However, in New York, Metro-North owns a "healthy percentage" of the lots along the Metro-North line, according to Aaron Donovan, a Metro-North spokesman.
Metro-North does provide information to Connecticut police departments "to help support investigation they may be conducting," Donovan said.
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