PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — A Tigard police spokesperson frames the theft of catalytic converters from the undercarriage of residents’ vehicles this way: “Usually, people don’t know anything is wrong until they start up their car and it makes a very loud noise.”

In Tigard, the theft of those necessary mechanical devices — which keep a motorist’s vehicle from belching out harmful carbon monoxide — has increased significantly over the last two years. So far this year, 107 catalytic converters have been reported stolen in Tigard, which is significant in itself.

“For a long time, we weren’t really seeing any, but then the price of metal went up during COVID and thieves are seizing the opportunity to make a buck,” said Kelsey Anderson, the Tigard Police Department spokesperson. “We’ve seen them stolen from commercial vehicles, in business lots and from personal cars while the owner is at work.”

While there was only one catalytic converter reported stolen in Tigard in January, 20 thefts were reported in August and 19 in September.

Meanwhile, The Reynolds School District reported that 22 catalytic converters were stolen from buses and fleet vehicles on Saturday, Sept. 11.

The theft and damages are valued at $70,000. Repairs are estimated to take months, primarily due to the short supply of catalytic converters.

“It is going to be several months before we can get these buses up and running again,” said Steve Padilla, Reynolds School District’s assistant director of public relations NS partnerships. “As far as we know, there is only one (catalytic convertor repair shop) in the state of Oregon.”

COURTESY PHOTO: TIGARD POLICE DEPARTMENT – A graph from the Tigard Police Department shows the increase of thefts of catalytic converters during 2021.

The crime is on the rise elsewhere, too. “We had four in August and 13 in September,” Tualatin Police Chief Bill Steele said last month. “Our numbers look lower so far in October, but I know local agencies, to include us, have been making arrests.”

Hillsboro has seen such thefts rise. While only six thefts were reported in January, that number jumped to 20 in August, with 22 reported through the first 26 days of October, according to Hillsboro police.

What makes catalytic converters such a prized target is not only the precious metals they contain, but also the ease in which they can be taken.

“With the right tools, it could be a matter of minutes for a thief to remove the converter and be on their way,” said Sgt. Danny DiPietro, spokesperson for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

That quick escape means it’s harder to catch the metal thieves.

While Tigard police arrested a catalytic converter thief on Oct. 10, after a witness watched him remove the mechanical device from a school bus at Durham Elementary School, such instances are rare, Anderson said.

As in Tigard, thefts reported to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office have increased significantly over the last year.

“In 2020, we took about 30 reports of these thefts. So far in 2021, there’s been around 175 reports,” said Sgt. Cliff Lascink, property crimes supervisor for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. “The most common type of vehicle being targeted is the Toyota Prius. However, other makes/models of both personal and commercial motor vehicles are also being targeted.”

Lascink said that based on descriptions, it appears most of the cases involve individuals acting alone or in pairs. While he said there are likely some organized groups involved, it is not the bulk of what the Sheriff’s Office is currently seeing.

“Although Oregon law requires metal property transaction records for transportation and sale, it’s believed the stolen catalytic converters are being sold off the record or transported in larger quantities across state lines,” Lascink said.

Even smaller metro cities like Tualatin have not been immune to catalytic converter thefts.

In May, KOIN News 6, a news partner of Pamplin Media Group, reported that several local muffler shops have been getting more business lately, with one telling they had seen a threefold increase in requests to replace stolen catalytic converters.

Portland Tribune and its parent, Pamplin Media Group, are KOIN 6 news partners.

The part sells for $500, according to Sen. Chris Gorsek, a Troutdale Democrat who along with Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat, sponsored and helped pass a bipartisan bill that makes it harder to sell the stolen part.

Senate Bill 803 “prohibits scrap metal business from purchasing or receiving catalytic converters, except from (the) commercial seller or owner of vehicle from which catalytic converter was removed.”

The bill, which goes into effect Jan. 1, was at the request of Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

In a legislative memorandum, Aaron Knott, Schmidt’s policy director, wrote that more and more catalytic converters are being stolen because the apprehension rates are low “yet the cash return is significant.”

“This has created an exploding black and gray market in stolen catalytic converters that is driving significant losses to Oregonian businesses and vehicle owners across the state,” Knott wrote.

In an email to Pamplin Media Group, Schmidt wrote that SB 803 is a non-criminal solution to a problematic crime.

“Instead of calling for more prosecutions and resources, this bill addresses the underlying issue. These car parts are easy to steal and easy to sell,” Schmidt wrote. “If we can shut down the illegitimate markets for these stolen goods, we will drastically undercut the incentives people have to steal them in them in the first place.”

In addition to limiting catalytic converts sales to commercial vendors only, Schmidt says it requires that scrap metal businesses to “retain the make, model, year, vehicle identification number and license number associated with any catalytic converter they receive to ensure that even those unscrupulous commercial vendors willing to buy stolen catalytic converters won’t be able to redeem their value.”

Reporters Max Egener and Angel Rosas contributed to this report.