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May 22, 2023

New Jersey passes law to curb catalytic converter thefts, expands guidelines for selling scrap metal

Scrapyards must now obtain vehicle identification and documents before purchasing used catalytic converters

Scrap metal businesses and junkyards are now required to obtain vehicle identification and documentation before purchasing used catalytic converters under a new law aimed at reducing thefts across New Jersey. 

The measure, which was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy last week, amends the legal definition of "scrap metal" to include all or part of a used catalytic converter that is not attached to a car. When purchasing from a seller, scrap metal businesses must document the vehicle's identification number, certificate of title or registration, a receipt from a repair transaction or a bill of the car's sale, unless they are buying from a registered car parts business. Fines will be imposed for not following the new rules.

Though the theft and resale of catalytic converters has been illegal in New Jersey, the new law makes it trickier for bad actors to sell stolen converters to scrapyards for thousands of dollars while making it easier for law enforcement to track down and prosecute thieves. 

The law is part of a four-step plan proposed by Murphy last fall addressing a rise in auto theft across the state in recent years. The plan builds on a $10 million investment made last April to install license plate camera software, which officials said brought down auto thefts by 14% from September 2021 through September 2022. Still, there were 14,320 vehicles stolen in 2021, 22% higher than in 2020. 

"Addressing catalytic converter theft is another method of combating auto theft and crime in our state," Murphy said. "Residents who experience the violation of having a critical component of their vehicle stolen are forced to pay thousands of dollars to replace them. We take serious the safety of our residents and communities and will continue to confront this issue head on to further the tremendous progress we have made in reducing auto thefts." 

Catalytic converters — which help cars clean their emissions — can contain several valuable metals, including rhodium, palladium and platinum. An ounce of rhodium is worth $12,300; palladium and platinum are worth around $1,000 per ounce, according to the National Insurance Crime BureauBecause they are located on a car's exterior, they are easier to steal than other metal car parts, NPR reported.

The bureau recorded 52,000 catalytic converter thefts in 2021, up from just 1,300 in 2018. 

Most gas-powered vehicles built after 1974 have catalytic converters, so there are plenty of cars that appeal to thieves, according to Allstate. Taller vehicles, like pickup trucks and SUVs, are often targeted because people can easily fit underneath them to saw out their converters. 

"By implementing guidelines on the sale and purchase of catalytic converters, we raise the bar for accountability, making it harder for criminals to profit from stolen converters and easier for law enforcement to bring them to justice," said Attorney General Matthew Platkin. "Together, we send a resounding message: we stand united in safeguarding our communities and will utilize all tools to combat auto theft." 

To prevent catalytic converter theft, experts recommend car owners know whether their vehicles are typically targeted, park in well-lit areas overnight, regularly move their cars and paint their converters to make it more difficult for them to be sold. 

Similar efforts have been spearheaded in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania as the country has seen an uptick in converter thefts since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In January, Mayor Jim Kenney signed into law a bill that requires businesses to obtain proof of origin before purchasing catalytic converters. Anyone who steals a converter or engages in an illegitimate sale could be fined up to $2,000 per car part and face possible prison time. 

City Council took on the issue as the city faced nearly 3,500 converter thefts in 2021, with thieves across the city running away from crime scenes with thousands of dollars worth of precious metals and, in some cases, shooting bystanders and community leaders who intervene.  

At the state level, Rep. MaryLouise Isaacson, a Democrat representing portions of Philadelphia, introduced a bill with bipartisan support that would expand Pennsylvania's current regulations on catalytic converter theft, requiring sellers to provide identification and other documentation before attempting to sell converters to scrapyards. 

The bill, which is making its way through the House of Representatives, would also require buyers to photograph the converter and the person selling it at the time of the sale and withhold payments for 48 hours after the purchase is completed.