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Three People Plead Guilty to $38 Million Catalytic Converter Theft Scheme

Three people pleaded guilty to their participation in a nationwide catalytic converter theft conspiracy in a California District Court earlier this week. The individuals—a mother and her two sons—were involved in a scheme to transport stolen catalytic converters from California to New Jersey in return for more than $38 million in wired payments.

The charges were related to a nationwide, coordinated takedown of leaders and associates of a national network of thieves, dealers, and processers of stolen catalytic converters, which were sold to a metal refinery for more than $600 million, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of California.

The three individuals—brothers Tou Sue Vang, 32, and Andrew Vang, 28, and their mother Monica Moua, 58—pleaded guilty to operating an unlicensed business from their home in Sacramento, California, where they bought stolen catalytic converters from thieves and shipped them to DG Auto Parts LLC in New Jersey to be processed. Andrew Vang and Moua face a maximum penalty of five years in prison each. Tou Sue Vang pleaded guilty to an additional 39 charges of money laundering—he could face up to 20 years in prison for some of the charges.

Charges were also filed against 21 other people allegedly involved in the conspiracy, including seven people who operated DG Auto.

But what’s a catalytic converter, and why are they worth stealing? The devices are part of a vehicle’s exhaust system, and the cylinders reduce the toxic gas and pollutants released from internal combustion engines. Catalytic converters use precious metals, such as palladium, platinum, and rhodium—these are the reason for the high rate of theft. Depending on the device, the black-market price for converters can be more than $1,000 each, with the precious metals fetching up to $50 per gram in resale markets. (Catalytic converters from hybrid cars fetch more money because they contain more precious metals.)

As many as 153,000 catalytic converters were stolen in the United States in 2022, according to Carfax data that checked service records for replacement devices. Thieves often targeted parking lots—even well-lit ones—and car dealerships. A practiced thief can steal a converter in less than a minute with the aid of a battery-operated saw, and a replacement part can cost car owners $2,000-$3,000.

The decline in the price of precious metals has had a marked impact on catalytic converter theft this year. In the first six months of 2023, there were 26,742 catalytic converter thefts in the United States—down 43 percent from the same period in 2022, BeenVerified told USA TODAY. But the thefts are still nearly 21 times higher than in 2019. The crime trend really took off in 2020 and 2021, when precious metal costs were high and supplies were limited by COVID-related supply chain disruptions.

U.S. lawmakers have been taking action to penalize catalytic converter theft more harshly. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) is tracking nearly 100 pieces of state legislation that would limit the purchase or sale of catalytic converters, make their theft a felony, or revise laws related to scrap yards. Some states are also requiring new vehicle dealers to offer serial number etching kits to customers, which would enable vehicle owners to mark catalytic converters with their car’s vehicle identification number (VIN), enabling law enforcement and scrap dealers to identify stolen car parts.