Thieves have been crawling under cars on campus and stealing a part containing expensive precious metals, according to Lt. Meg Ross, University Police (UP) spokeswoman.
Between April 4 and April 10, UP received five reports of stolen – or botched attempts at stealing – catalytic converters. Catalytic converters, which are located underneath the car near the exhaust pipe, filter toxins emitted by vehicles. The converters contain small amounts of platinum, palladium and rhodium.
The thefts at the University match a nationwide trend in catalytic converter thefts. A Feb. 12 MSNBC article reported that as the price of precious metals rises, more converters are being stolen. Also, an employee from Tampa-based A & J Towing, who declined to give her name, said the company has towed many cars from which catalytic converters were stolen in recent weeks.
According to kitco.com, a precious metal retailer’s Web site, platinum is worth more than $2,000 an ounce and rhodium is worth nearly $9,000 an ounce on the open market.
Ross said it might be hard for car owners at the University to protect themselves from this type of crime, but she encouraged vigilance.
“It’s really hard to secure your catalytic converter. I guess cars that are low to the ground are a little safer,” she said. “Certainly we want anyone to report anything suspicious. Call the police if you see anyone seen with a saw, as it does require a tool. They seem to be cutting.”
The thefts occurred in five parking lots across campus.
Jose Rey, a doctoral candidate in chemical and biomedical engineering, realized he was a victim when he started his car.
“The unbearable roar of the engine almost gave me a heart attack,” Rey said. “I immediately turned the car off and crawled under it to see what was going on. To my dismay, a part of the exhaust system wasn’t there anymore.”
Rey suspects that since his car is an SUV, the thief had the space to remove his converter with a saw.
“The other thing about catalytic converters is that the thief probably doesn’t have to deal with the car alarm going off,” he said.
While Rey paid $135 to replace his converter, some cost more than $1,000 to replace. The employee from A & J said the cost typically ranges from $8-$300, and that stolen converters are usually sold to scrap metal companies.
Rey had left his car overnight near the Engineering Building. At first, he believed that the converter must have been stolen in the night, but was told by UP that the theft might have happened during the day.
“In some cases, people think it is the owner fixing something. In others, they just choose to ignore what is happening to avoid getting into trouble,” he said. “In cases like this, awareness by students might be the best defense.”
A thief tried to steal USF student Austin Toli’s catalytic converter but was interrupted by a witness who called UP. UP called Toli to inform him about the attempted burglary, telling him that a woman in the parking lot spotted the thief and reported the incident to UP. The suspect fled when UP responded.
“My converter was cut, but they weren’t able to take it,” Toli said. “Luckily, instead of a $600 fix, it only cost me $25.”
Ross also attributed the spike in crime to timing, as last week was spring break for Hillsborough County public schools.
“There’s kids with more time on their hands, so we see a spike in crime,” she said.
UP has informed AlliedBarton of the crimes so they can be on the lookout for any suspicious activity.