Recent theft surge ‘is definitely on people’s radar throughout the county,’ police say

Whatcom County law enforcement agencies have seen the number of reports of catalytic converter thefts in Bellingham, Lynden, Ferndale and in the county increase and are working to together to end it.
Whatcom County law enforcement agencies have seen the number of reports of catalytic converter thefts in Bellingham, Lynden, Ferndale and in the county increase and are working to together to end it. The Bellingham Herald

It started as a low rumble — a few reports of stolen catalytic converters scattered here and there back in September. But nearly four months later, Whatcom County law enforcement agencies have seen the problem grow into a deafening roar as large as ... well, a fleet of cars with missing catalytic converters.

During the month of January, the Bellingham Police Department received six reports of catalytic converter thefts, Lt. Claudia Murphy said — the last of which came Jan. 30, when seven vehicles from a car lot in the 4300 block of Guide Meridian had exhaust emission control devices removed.

So far in February, Bellingham police received reports of four more catalytic converter thefts, Murphy said, including one Wednesday in the 2900 block of Northwest Avenue off a rental car filling in for a vehicle that was already in the repair shop for repairs after having its catalytic converter cut off.

Those 10 reports in 2019 for 16 stolen catalytic converters bring the total number of reports in the City of Subdued Excitement since Nov. 1 to 24, according to statistics compiled by Murphy.

Bellingham is not alone, though, as thieves look to make money by scrapping the parts for the valuable metals, including platinum, found inside the converters.

Chief John Billester said Friday that the Lynden Police Department received seven reports of catalytic converter thefts during January, bringing the number reported in town since Nov. 1 to 12.

Last month the Lynden Chamber of Commerce posted a Facebook warning to car owners to set their car alarms, park inside or in well-lighted areas and keep an eye out for suspicious activity. And that’s coming from a city that was just ranked the eighth-safest in the state in 2019 by the National Council for Home Safety and Security.

“It’s a unique crime,” Billester told The Bellingham Herald. “Crimes of theft kind of ebb and flow. We’re definitely in the flow with these. The thing that makes it so frustrating is victims don’t know until they turn the key. It’s loud and it’s expensive, and you can’t even drive your car unless you’re on your way to get it fixed because you’ll get stopped.”

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has received 25 reported cases in unincorporated portions of the county since June 2018, according to information provided to The Bellingham Herald by Chief Criminal Deputy Doug Chadwick, who added that the sheriff’s office is “aware of multiple other catalytic converter thefts that have occurred in other cities around the county.”

Fortunately, Blaine is not among those, according to Sgt. Michael Munden, who said police “so far (knock on wood), have not had to deal with any catalytic converter thefts.” Ferndale Communications Officer Riley Sweeney said police have had three converter thefts reported since November.

With the thefts happening all around the county, Murphy and Billester said Whatcom County law enforcement agencies are communicating about the recent surge, regularly exchanging information electronically to see if they can piece together trends to help make an arrest.

“This is definitely on people’s radar throughout the county,” Murphy told The Herald in an interview last week. “What we need to do now is find out where they (the converters) are going.”

To do so, Billester said it is incumbent on any recycler receiving catalytic converters to give police a call.

“Something is happening out there, and it’s happening under the table, it seems to me,” Billester told The Herald, “unless there’s somebody hoarding them and they’re going to truck them somewhere else.”

According to a story by the Wall Street Journal, one of the reason’s thieves have been targeting catalytic converters is that the price of palladium — a silvery white precious metal found in the converters — has climbed more than 50 percent since mid-August. According to Apmex, the world’s largest retailer of precious metals, palladium is worth $1,410.20 per ounce — 7.5 percent more than gold ($1311.20 per ounce).

Lt. Chuck Nagle of the Vestavia Hilla, Alabama, police department told the Wall Street Journal that the scrap metals in each stolen catalytic converter can usually bring between $150 and $200.

While finding where the stolen catalytic converters are going is important in stopping the recent string of thefts, Billester said every resident of Whatcom County can play a role in cutting off the supply.

“People reporting suspicious activity or hearing activity is going to be real important in stopping this,” he said. “If you see something out of the ordinary, like someone outside late at night or in a parking lot, or a car with its lights on for a few minutes not going anywhere, call the police and let them know.”

Stopping the recent rash of thefts is to everyone’s benefit, as the parts and labor to replace a catalytic converter can run approximately $1,500.

Nobody knows that better than Michael Watters, the founder and owner of Kid’s World. The Whatcom County preschool and daycare program had three catalytic converters stolen off three vans parked in Ferndale and Bellingham during a three-week stretch in November and then had three more stolen in one night over the New Year’s holiday weekend.

“We are profoundly impacted,” Watters told The Herald in an email. “Those funds were desperately needed for staff pay increases. Who buys this stuff? Who steals from little kids?”

Tips to prevent thefts

Bellingham Police Lt. Claudia Murphy offered these tips to help prevent catalytic converter thefts, which she said most often target trucks, SUVs, vans and buses:

▪ If you can’t park in a locked garage, park the car in well-lit, well-traveled areas, making it less attractive to thieves as an option.

▪ If you have a security system, calibrate it to sound upon vibrations.

▪ Engrave the vehicle’s identification number, or VIN, onto the converter, making it harder to sell and a lot easier to track.

▪ If your catalytic converter is stolen, report it right away to law enforcement and let them know if the VIN number is on it.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.