A boom in catalytic converter thefts prompted the Minneapolis City Council to approve an ordinance Friday regulating the sale and purchase of the vehicle pollution control devices, which are made of valuable metals.

Under the ordinance, no person or business can buy or sell a used catalytic converter that isn't attached to a vehicle unless the seller is a licensed business. It also prohibits possession of one or more catalytic converters by anyone other than a vehicle owner.

So far this year, Minneapolis has recorded 1,214 catalytic converter thefts and St. Paul has had 1,556 — more than in all of 2020.

Catalytic converters contain precious metals like palladium, rhodium and platinum, which have been spiking in value. According to Council Member Lisa Goodman, precious metals in catalytic converters have hit record prices, with rhodium selling in March at $29,800 per ounce.

In St. Paul, police are offering to paint the devices underneath cars and SUVs to deter thieves. The City Council there passed an ordinance to make sales or purchases of detached catalytic converters by unlicensed dealers a misdemeanor, exempting only auto repair garages.

Law enforcement officers and angry car owners nationwide have endured a wave of catalytic converter thefts, in which thieves jack up cars or even crawl under SUVs to swiftly steal the emission systems.

The most brazen thieves even use unmarked tow trucks to lift the cars so they can snatch the catalytic converters and quickly drive away.

"It's really up in every urban area and surrounding suburbs," said St. Paul police spokeswoman Sgt. Natalie Davis. "It takes less than two minutes to remove a converter and sell it to a scrap yard for a lot of money. Most shops have a waiting list for people needing to replace stolen converters."

Toyota Prius models and Mitsubishi SUVs are favorite targets, she added.

Under a new law, the state will spend $400,000 over the next two years to send paint and engraving tools to the highest-theft areas to mark converters.

The law requires businesses buying converters to follow regulations that currently govern scrap metal dealers, as well as check for anti-theft markings on any catalytic converters they buy.

Several scrap metal, auto repair and recycling businesses have sent letters to the Minneapolis City Council raising concerns that the new ordinance will hurt people who legally buy and sell converters.

But Council Member Andrew Johnson, who sponsored the ordinance, said the city needed to take aggressive action because not enough was being on done on the state and national level.

"There has been an absolute explosion in these crimes," he said. "I've heard stories of people being victimized several times and having to pay thousands of dollars each time for a replacement."

Goodman, who supported the ordinance, noted in her online newsletter that federal law doesn't require automakers to mark catalytic converters with a vehicle identification number, making them less traceable to the original vehicle than other major parts.

"Catalytic converters can be sold in bulk without the need to advertise them for sale," she wrote. "There is an active market of buyers willing to purchase detached catalytic converters and that will accept bulk shipments with very limited scrutiny."

She included data from State Farm Insurance that showed catalytic converter thefts have increased by 293% nationwide over the past year. The data also showed that more than $33.7 million in claims associated with catalytic converter thefts has been paid out over the past year.

State law prohibits operating a vehicle without the proper emissions equipment. And they don't function as well without a converter, Davis said.

It's frustrating and expensive for victims, who are forced to shell out hundreds or even thousands of dollars for repairs that sometimes cost more than the vehicle is worth.

Minneapolis police advise residents to watch for suspicious activity, such as people walking or driving up and down a street, alley, parking ramps or surface lots — and someone looking at a vehicle or crawling underneath it.

Unfortunately, most catalytic converter thefts don't end with an arrest, Davis said.

Eagan police parked bait cars last fall that were wired with cameras and alarms to notify officers when somebody tampered with them. That led to a few arrests, but without video proof it's a tough crime to investigate, according to the department.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465