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On quiet neighborhood streets and in busy retail parking lots, thieves are sliding under cars undetected, sawing off catalytic converters in minutes and making off with the emission-control devices that contain precious metals more valuable than gold.

In more brazen moves, criminals are using stolen tow trucks with no markings to haul vehicles down the street, where they carry out their crime and then leave the cars behind.

Catalytic converter thefts are fast and easy, and are part of a crime wave happening all over the Twin Cities urban core and in the suburbs. Thefts are up 194% this year in St. Paul and were up 456% last year in Minneapolis. In Eagan, police report the biggest spike in more than 12 years.

It's vexing for police, who say there is little they can do to prevent the thefts and that it's tough to catch crooks unless they are caught in the act. It's also frustrating and expensive for victims, who are forced to shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for repairs that sometimes cost more than the vehicle is worth.

Jillian Goods of south Minneapolis donated her 2007 Toyota Prius after a thief swiped her catalytic converter last summer and left springs and other parts lying in the street. It wasn't worth fixing, so she bought a new car, she said.

"I was so sad when they towed that car away. I brought my kids home in that car," Goods said. "It's interesting to see how easy of a crime it is and how expensive it is to deal with."

Mary Hanson, also of south Minneapolis, knew she had been hit last October when she started her 2005 Prius and it sounded like "the world's loudest drag racing car." After getting it repaired, she had a mechanic install an aluminum security plate for $250 on her vehicle and another Prius she owns. The shields are among new products car owners are turning to to guard against catalytic converter thefts.

"It sucks to pay money in hopes you don't get hit," Hanson said.

Law enforcement officials say catalytic converters have become a hot commodity because the insides are coated with precious metals like palladium, rhodium and platinum, which remove the worst toxic pollutants from the car's exhaust. The value of those metals is skyrocketing: Platinum was going for more than $1,200 an ounce Thursday, according to several online trading sites.

Thieves can sell the converters to scrap yards that pay up to a few hundred dollars apiece, or fetch a pretty penny by hawking them on Facebook marketplace and other websites featuring used car parts.

The uptick in thefts has made for big business for auto repair shops. Over the past year, "there hasn't been a day gone by I haven't seen at least one," said Steve Larson, owner of Muffler Clinic and Brakes in St. Louis Park. "It has been insane."

Repairs can run from a few hundred dollars to nearly $3,000, Larson said. The most common vehicles entering his shop are the Toyota Prius, Honda CRV and Mitsubishi Outlander.

The Prius has long been a favorite target locally and nationally because their engines don't run as much, meaning the precious metals inside take longer to burn out. Toyota spokesman Nathan Kokes called catalytic converter theft "an industrywide challenge" and something the company continues to monitor "as the safety and security of our customers are top priorities."

Meanwhile, law enforcement is trying to stop the larceny. Police in Eagan, where there have been 70 catalytic converter thefts since September, including 21 in January, put out bait cars last fall wired with cameras and alarms that notify police when somebody tampers with the car. That led to a few arrests, said spokesman Aaron Machtemes. But in other cases, without video proof, it's tough to investigate.

"Unless you catch them red-handed, it's really hard to prove," Machtemes said.

Thefts in Minneapolis jumped from 130 in 2019 to 723 last year. In January, in a new twist, crooks used tow trucks to move a car down the street in seconds. With the vehicle lifted, thieves can cut off the converter without having to crawl underneath, and they then dump the car, said police spokesman John Elder.

Police can hardly keep up, Elder said. Officers have made arrests, including some who were repeat offenders. "But they are right back out there doing it," he said.

For Cmdr. Kurt Hallstrom of the St. Paul Police Department, it's equally frustrating to find a driver with multiple converters in the trunk and not be able to take action. It is not illegal in Minnesota to transport them, and "even if we catch people with them, it's almost impossible to get that back to the car it was stolen from," he said.

This month, the department launched a social media campaign to bring attention to the problem. In Facebook posts, the department reminds car owners to park in garages or well-lit areas, set car alarms to sound when the vehicle is vibrated, watch for people looking under cars and to listen for sawing sounds.

Last year, the St. Paul City Council passed an ordinance making it illegal for a person or business — other than a legitimate auto repair garage — to buy or sell a detached catalytic converter.

The problem has also caught the attention of state lawmakers, including Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, who had a catalytic converter stolen off her car last fall while it was sitting outside an auto repair business. She has introduced a bill that would make it a crime to possess a catalytic converter without proof of ownership.

The law would also require anybody buying a catalytic converter to follow the same rules that apply to scrap recyclers, who are required to file detailed transaction reports that include collecting a seller's name, copy of identification, license plate and photo or video of the item being sold. She said she hopes her bill will strengthen a 2013 law by adding provisions focusing on criminal behavior.

Hallstrom said he hopes the bill passes.

"We hope the Legislature will help curtail these thefts with a bill that will have teeth to allow us to catch and convict them," he said.

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768