When Linda Nelson turned the ignition on her old Honda Accord, the vehicle roared louder than a hot rod.
At first the Springfield resident thought her car's muffler had fallen off, but she soon learned someone had crawled under her 23-year-old car and cut away its catalytic converter while it sat in her driveway.
She is hardly alone.
Catalytic converter thefts are on the rise in Illinois, and the thefts are proving costly for individuals and businesses alike.
According to State Farm claims data, Illinois ranks third in the nation for catalytic converter thefts and has experienced an increase since 2019, said Gina Morss-Fischer, a spokesperson for the insurance company.
A catalytic converter is an exhaust emission-control device that converts toxic gases and pollutants in exhaust gas from an internal combustion engine into less-toxic pollutants. U.S. law requires all cars made since 1975 to have such a device.
In recent years, thefts of the pollution-control devices have skyrocketed:
• In 2019, State Farm paid $651,000 for just over 480 catalytic converter theft claims in Illinois.
• In 2020, State Farm paid over $1.1 million for 740 catalytic converter theft claims in Illinois.
• In 2021, State Farm paid $3.1 million for 1,985 catalytic converter theft claims in Illinois.
• In the first eight months of 2022, State Farm has already paid $5.3 million for 2,770 catalytic converter theft claims in Illinois.
Nationally, State Farm alone has paid $70.6 million for 31,835 catalytic converter theft claims from January through August this year.
Springfield Assistant Chief of Police Joshua Stuenkel said there have been 117 reported catalytic converter thefts in the city this year. One thing driving the thefts may be videos posted on the internet showing would-be thieves how to remove the devices from a vehicle, he said.
The devices, which contain rhodium, palladium and platinum, can fetch hundreds of dollars in resale on the black market.
"They are worth more than gold," said Roger Brickler, an owner of Brickler Collision Services in Springfield. "Catalytic converters have platinum and other precious metals in them, and those metals are worth more than their weight in gold."
On Nov. 28, platinum was trading for $988 an ounce, palladium traded at $1,844 an ounce and rhodium traded for $13,400 an ounce. Gold was trading for $1,751 an ounce.
Last month, someone cut through the fence of Brickler's salvage yard on East Washington Street and sawed catalytic converters from "seven or eight" vehicles parked in his lot.
"I'm glad none of them belonged to customers. They were all cars that we were salvaging," he said.
Since the theft, Brickler has installed security cameras and taken steps to ensure salvaged vehicles are far less accessible to would-be thieves.
His business is hardly alone. Auto dealers, construction contractors and other salvage yards have all reportedly been struck by thieves in recent months.
Brickler said catalytic converters on certain older cars are more likely to be targeted by thieves because they have greater quantities of precious metals.
But one of the newer cars targeted is the Toyota Prius.
Springfield-area resident Tom Irwin had a catalytic converter stolen from his 2006 Prius about a year ago. The vehicle was being used by his college-age son, John, who lives in a Springfield apartment complex.
"He saw a hacksaw blade or something just underneath it. So, they just came in the middle of the night and jacked it up, cut it off, took off, and that was that," Irwin said.
It cost about $500 for an off-market converter to be installed by a friend who is a mechanic. He said because the work was done by a friend, the cost was considerably lower than it otherwise might be.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates the cost of catalytic converter replacements between $1,000 and $3,000. Since the vehicles targeted are often older, many of their owners no longer have full insurance coverage and are forced to pay for repairs out of pocket.
"We believe that these thefts are being committed by lone individuals rather than organized crews," said Sangamon County Sheriff Jack Campbell. "They are very easy crimes to commit because, for the most part, these vehicles are parked out in the open and often haven't been driven for a long time. My guess is that there are dozens and dozens of cases in Sangamon County that have gone unreported because the owners haven't realized that a theft has taken place because it's been so long since they last drove a particular vehicle."
Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at email@example.com.