Shepherd Park Plaza residents Kathleen Ponter and Rachelle Vento both traveled to Timbergrove’s Brookhollow Marketplace on unrelated trips about two months apart earlier this year.
However, the two are now connected through a string of thefts that is sweeping through the Houston region. Vento and Ponter both had their catalytic converters stolen while inside various stores at the new shopping center near Dacoma Street and Highway 290 during those aforementioned trips.
“It sounded like a rocket taking off (when I turned my car on), and then I see my check engine light come on,” said Vento, who had the catalytic converter stolen off her Honda Element near the end of March. “I had no idea what was going on.”
Ponter had a similar experience about two months earlier in January at the same shopping center.
“When I first started the car after finishing with the shopping, it sounded like I was at a motorcycle rally,” she said.
Vento’s story is not an uncommon one around the area, as Sgt. Jesse Fite with the Houston Police Department’s Metal Theft Unit said catalytic converter thefts are on the rise both in Houston and nationwide over the last six months.
According to data from HPD, the department had fielded 935 calls related to stolen catalytic converters through the end of March – more than a 300 percent increase from the same period last year.
HPD had 210 calls through the first three months of last year, according to the data – a figure that was easily outstripped in January (298 calls), February (329), and March (308) of this year.
“We’re running around playing whack-a-mole trying to plug all the holes here and put a stop to it,” Fite said. “It’s a nationwide thing, not just a Houston thing.”
According to Fite, the most likely reason for the uptick in calls is the increase in the price of rhodium, a precious metal contained in the exhaust of a catalytic converter along with cerium, copper, iron, manganese, nickel, palladium, and platinum, which began late last year.
As recently as last summer, he said rhodium went for about $575 an ounce. It is now going in excess of $20,000 per ounce, making converter theft a lucrative practice.
“If they know what they’re doing, it takes less than two minutes. They can do it really fast,” he said.
Vento and Ponter have unfortunately both been on the receiving end of such a quick entrance and exit. Ponter said she was not at the shopping center for more than 30 minutes, while Vento estimated her trip inside was at most 10 minutes.
“(The store) didn’t have what I needed, so I just turned around and walked out. And in that amount of time, it was gone,” Vento said. “…I looked underneath, and there was the whole section missing out from under my car. I couldn’t believe how clean the cut was. It was just incredibly bizarre.”
Close to home
Even more jarring for them and other local residents, is that their thefts occurred in broad daylight and right in their own neck of the woods. Vento was at the center around 6 p.m. the night of her incident in March, while Ponter said she made her trip around 2 p.m.
“That’s how bold they are,” Ponter said. “…You never think people are just going to take parts of your car.”
Fite said one of the hot spots for converter theft calls have been on the north side of the city in neighborhoods such as Garden Oaks, Oak Forest, the Heights, Timbergrove and others. All cars and trucks are equipped with catalytic converters, and Fite said areas such as the shopping center Vento and Ponter frequent and restaurant parking lots – among others – that are prevalent in those areas can serve as the stomping grounds for potential theft.
That realization has been an adjustment for residents such as Ponter who simply could not comprehend such a thing happening right there under their noses.
“I’m kind of just waiting for it to happen again, unfortunately,” she said.
Vento echoed the sentiment.
“I was in shock when we figured it out – it felt bizarre to know they could do that in that amount of time in broad daylight,” she said. “It’s one of those things where you think “It’s never going to happen to me.”
In light of the increase in incidents, Fite said HPD as well as the city and Harris County are taking steps in an effort to mitigate incidents similar to what happened to Vento and Ponter.
Texas Occupation Code 1956 and City of Houston, Code Ch. 7 currently regulate the sale of catalytic converters to metal recyclers, and information required for each sale – which is about 2,000 per week in Houston/Harris County according to Fite – is reported to law enforcement. Under a new rule approved April 5, Fite said city of Houston metal recyclers have to take pictures of every side of the catalytic converters and make the information available to law enforcement. As such, he said there are a few suggestions the department has for making converters more easily connected to a specific vehicle if a thief attempts to sell a stolen converter.
One option is to engrave a number – such as the VIN or license plate number with the state or province. Another tactic could be to add bright automotive exhaust spray paint in a generous portion onto the converter. By adding bright paint, Fite said you can create a visible deterrent to alert suspects to move on. This paint also signals law enforcement and recyclers to look deeper for serial numbers or identification marks.
“They would see the engraving on there, and the rule says they have to document the engraving for law enforcement so we can track it back to you,” Fite said. “…and putting (bright paint) is like putting bars on your house windows – they see a bright orange catalytic converter, and they’ll just go away.”
In the meantime, however, the trend has created an uneasy sense for those such as Vento or Ponter with every trip to the grocery store or shopping center, making them wonder if it will be curbed anytime soon.
“Every time I get ready to start my car, I’m wondering if it’s going to happen again,” Vento said. “It's a weird feeling."