ST. LOUIS ( -- Catalytic converters, critical to making your car run correctly, are being stolen by thieves looking for easy cash. It can cost a victim hundreds or thousands of dollars to replace.

“I use this van for my work,” said Lars Coats, whose catalytic converters were recently stolen in South St. Louis. “As soon as I turned the key and started it up, I knew what had happened." It's happening all over the St. Louis region. Toyota Prius’ are a big target, but commercial vehicles at businesses and charities also being hit hard.

“Generally speaking, it’s a problem,” said Grant Bissell with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. Law enforcement has seen a spike in the crime. Just since the start of the year, St. Louis police report nearly 60 stolen catalytic converters. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office says 70 catalytic converters in their area have been stolen in just the last few months.

“It is something we are looking at very hard right now,” Bissel said. “Apparently it’s a big problem across the entire country right now. I think it’s a relatively easy score as far as cash goes."

Bissel says it’s all just a business. Inside a catalytic converter are several precious metals: platinum, palladium and rhodium, which have seen recent increases in market value.

“The reason behind this crime is the reason behind a lot of crimes; its money. Someone is buying them,” Bissel said.

News 4 decided to go straight to the middle man. Using a catalytic converter we borrowed from a local autobody repair shop, News 4 Investigates went undercover to see what salvage yards are up to. We found local scrap yards who were willing to buy it for big bucks with little to no questions asked. But others, wouldn't even talk about buying it.

Some experts say regulations about buying and selling can vary by location. St. Louis City prohibits anyone from selling a catalytic converter, unless they are a vehicle repair business. And one city scrap yard appeared to play by the rules, at least in part.

“It’s absolutely worth something but I have to have a business license or that you work on vehicles of some type or the title of the vehicle that it came off of to buy it,” said a woman at one of the salvage yards.

“There has been an epidemic if you will,” said State Representative Don Mayhew, from Pulaski County. He is now looking to make laws more stringent statewide. “Without teeth, it’s just another piece of paper that we file."

Right now in Missouri, anyone buying metal like copper or catalytic converters must make a record of who's selling, doing things like take down the seller’s driver's license and even their license plate. The idea is to keep track of who is selling the occasional catalytic converter off a junk car they legitimately own and who is selling them by the dozens potentially stolen.

“The problem is then it sits in a file cabinet at the salvage yard and it’s not that its inaccessible, it’s not very convenient to the sheriff’s office at that point,” Representative Mayhew said. Mayhew has proposed a bill requiring the salvage yards to take additional steps to determine where the catalytic converter came from and then transmit those records to the local sheriff's office, every single month.

Asked if it would be a deterrent to criminals stealing the catalytic converters to have their name sent to local sheriff's offices when they sell it, Mayhew said. “Well, I hope so and that’s the purpose.” Failure to do so, under the bill, could result in criminal charges for the scrap dealer.

Still, it's not clear if all salvage yards are even following the laws already on the books.

“You can go turn in four, five, six of these catalytic converters and they don't ask any questions,” Coats said. And victims say to truly curb this crime, more must be done. “I am the kind of guy that if you have a problem, fix it, It’s not that hard, let’s do it."

News 4 tried talking with some of the scrap yards but they didn't go on anyone camera. One, though, said they just won't buy any catalytic converters, saying "we don’t touch them, we don't want trouble." The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office says they are taking it very seriously and making headway into an investigation into a local group whose been doing this. But they say sometimes it’s also people from out-of-state.

In the meantime, there are ways you can protect yourself.

According to Allstate Insurance:

  • When possible, park in well-lit areas, or close to buildings
  • If you have a garage at your house, park your car inside and keep the garage door shut.
  • Have the catalytic converter welded to your car's frame, which may make it harder to steal.
  • Consider engraving your vehicle identification number (VIN) on the catalytic converter — this may help alert a scrap dealer that it was stolen and make it easier to identify the owner.
  • Calibrate your car's alarm to set off when it detects vibration.

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