COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Every day someone comes out of their home or business and starts up their vehicle — only to hear a rumbling in the engine that gets louder when they hit the gas. Check underneath, and there’s a gaping hole where the catalytic converter used to be.

“It’s painful to see people who can’t pay their bills, and now they can’t drive their car to work,” Det. Josh Gilbert of Groveport police said. “There are so many people stealing catalytic converters that we take a report every day.”

Police: $1.7 million in catalytic converters allegedly stolen from Ohioans

When Gilbert began looking into catalytic converter thefts, he didn’t anticipate that he’d find such a pervasive crime.

Catalytic converters seized during a search warrant executed in Sept. 2021 in Columbus. (Photo credit: Groveport Police Department.)

His investigations led to the indictment of Tommy Cox Jr. and five other people on 90 felonies, where they are accused of engaging in corrupt activity, receiving stolen property, possession of criminal tools, theft, weapons under disability, and money laundering.

Gilbert said he found evidence that Cox scrapped a little more than 1,100 catalytic converters for more than $480,000 in cash. Investigation into catalytic converter thefts spread over five counties.

“$1.7 million was the loss to society. That’s a low estimate,” Gilbert said. “We executed 20 search warrants in this case, and we believe we have the evidence to prosecute this as engaging in a corrupt activity.”

Cox, who is held on a $4 million bond, has pleaded not guilty in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.

Proposal: ban catalytic converter sales unless entire car scrapped

On Wednesday, Gilbert testified to an Ohio House committee, advocating for new penalties for catalytic converter thieves.

Language in House Bill 408, sponsored by Bob Young (R-Green), would make theft of a catalytic converter a fourth-degree felony. If the offender is a business, it would be fined between $10,000 to $50,000.

The legislation would categorize a catalytic converter as a “special purchase article,” Young said in a news release. This means any scrap metal dealer, bulk merchandise dealer, or any other entity purchasing such items “obtain from the seller or provider of the special purchase article or bulk merchandise container proof that the seller or provider owns the special purchase article or bulk merchandise container.” 

There are no labels on converters, so this bill would essentially ban their sale unless the person is scrapping an entire car, the release said.

Cash for stolen converter? It’s on the app

There is a scrapyard whose workers will drive to Columbus to pick up catalytic converters and will hand over cash and drive back to the yard, Gilbert said.

“A personal vehicle, depending on the make and model, a scrap yard will pay $500 to $600 — but you’d get $1,600 for a box truck. But they still hit personal vehicles,” Gilbert said about the thieves.

Catalytic converters seized during a search warrant executed in Sept. 2021 in Columbus. (Photo credit: Groveport Police Department.)

Rhodium makes the catalytic converters so attractive. The metal sold for $696 per ounce in 2016. Now the price is $18,000 an ounce, Young said on a website explaining HB 408.

There are also apps that thieves download to check prices for stolen catalytic converters, targeting certain makes and models, Gilbert said. The problem is there is no link between the victim and suspect.

“Catalytic converters have no identifiable VIN numbers, so it’s not linked back to a particular car,” he said.

Now he hopes HB 408 will stop catalytic converter thieves in their tracks, relegating that type of crime into the history of central Ohio.

“Law enforcement and criminal justice — we always have to adapt to the crimes,” Gilbert said. “Ten years ago when A/C units were cut off people’s homes, we regulated the scrapping of copper.”