If Metal Prices Keep Rising, Look for a Boom in Sawzall Sales

I love stories about the unintended consequences of rising commodity prices. (Here’s one, and here’s another.) Now Susan Saulny writes in the Times about another strange trend driven by high commodity prices: the rampant theft of cars’ catalytic converters, which contain trace amounts of platinum, palladium, and rhodium.

Levitt and I heard about this several months ago when we were interviewing a fascinating guy named Pat Lay who runs a very unusual auto-repair shop in Chicago. (I won’t go into what makes his shop unusual here since we may write about him soon.) When we asked Pat about scrap prices over the past several years, he called over a younger mechanic named Nick:

Pat: Hey Nick, what are these cars in weight — if you tow ’em across, what do you get for them?

Nick: The last one, the silver one, I think I got close to $300.

Pat: Just in weight. He does a lot of scrapping on the side. He’ll take the converters out and get $70 for the converters.

Nick: Depends. A lot of the Japanese are less; it ranges from $40 to $100 bucks apiece.

Pat: Just for the internals — the chemicals and the converter.

Nick: They just started having a real bad epidemic that people are making; they’re cutting cats off of people’s cars in the middle of the night.

Pat: We had a few people over at the lake front. They come out to start their car and obviously, there’s no exhaust system on it. We get underneath and somebody’s put a Sawzall in the center of the exhaust.

Nick: You could easily make in one night what we make in a month. Seven, eight of ’em in one night — 80 bucks, maybe 60 bucks apiece.

SJD: And then who buys them?

Nick: A lot of scrap places that do scrap metals. They take the insides out and they sell by the ton, so they offer a little bit more to you.

Last I heard, Nick was still working for Pat, although if prices keep rising he may be tempted to give up his day job.

Related: I haven’t read many articles lately about people who steal gas out of people’s tanks, even though the price of gas is historically high. Why not?

I am guessing that, although this does happen once in a while, it’s never been very popular since it’s just not practical to a) siphon off enough gas to make a lot of money, and b) find a willing buyer for used gas.



My uncle just had to have his gas tank replaced on an 07 Expedition after running over a piece of re-bar. The gas tank is plastic. so, no sparks.


My company uses brass. A lot of brass. Bar stock in particular in CNC lathes. When a bar is done on a machine there is about 12" left of bar end. These usually go into a recycle bin with the chips for resale to a recycler.
A few weeks ago we busted a guy stealing some of these. Now I don't know what 3 or 5 lbs of brass goes for on the street (certainly not as much as copper), but is it really worth your job?


Or maybe an increase in sales of clamps


Cars, houses, you name it. They got it.


The other problem with siphoning gas is most cars have gas tank locks now. Not like when I was kid...


#5 it's not all that unsafe to drill into *the bottom* of a petrol/gas tank since at the bottom its all liquid not vapor. As it pours out the fuel/air mix still isn't going to be right to cause an explosion and at that point you're not drilling any more so no sparks.


An increase in Sawzall sales? why not? as it is we are seeing folks going to more trouble for a lot less in the illegal metals market--look at all the stripping off copper wire from new housing projects, church air conditioners,etc

Imani Lateef

I afraid that this whole cat. theft thing is about to hit my town...I've noticed ads for jewlers asking for catalitic coverters....


Here in Portland Oregon, CC theft is very common. On the north side of the city there are scrap dealers advertising 'we buy converters'. The chemicals aren't used to make drugs - the money from the sale of the converter is used to buy drugs. Metal theft of all kinds (statuary, coaxial cable, parts of bridges) is at an all-time high here.

Paul peters

I'm afraid this story is at least a year old


From a St. Pete Times article by CHRIS ECHEGARAY, Published: October 17, 2007

BROOKSVILLE -- A 70-year-old Winter Haven man possessed lots of gas — illegally, the Polk County Sheriff's Office reported.

Hobert Gibson, of 3435 Recker Highway in Winter Haven, was arrested Tuesday on grand theft charges of stealing thousands of gallons of gas from stations in Pasco and Polk counties...

Gibson may be responsible for stealing 3,000 to 10,000 gallons of fuel each week using a box trailer and truck to steal the gasoline from the gas stations, investigators said.

Deputies saw Gibson siphoning 400 gallons of gas from the Circle K store at 8324 U.S. 98 N., Lakeland, and 523 gallons of gas from a Cumberland Farms Store in Dade City....

Gibson was driving a stolen box trailer, taken from Central Food Equipment on Reynolds Road in Lakeland in 2005, deputies said. The trailer had been outfitted with two tanks with a capacity of 3,250 gallons of fuel.

Gibson rigged a trap door in the bottom of the trailer and parked over the underground fuel tanks at gas stations. Deputies said he would drop a hose into the tanks and use marine batteries to pump the gas into the trailer.

He would unload the fuel into larger tanks at his business, Crews Towing, at the Recker Highway property, authorities said. Gibson would sell the fuel at $1.80 a gallon, authorities said...


Justin James

@Traciatim -

Stop second guessing your mechanic. A bad oil pump can lead to some severe exhaust problems, depending on what was wrong with it. Exhaust problems can clog a cat. A clogged cat can and will cause misfires as well; the exhaust system doesn't flow right, so the cylinder can't exhaust fully before the next intake stroke, causing the mixture to be wrong, causing a misfire.



I think another reason for the lack of gas theft is that at most pumps you either have to slide your credit card or pay inside first. Now that I think of it, I can't think of too many places where you can pump before paying.


A reputable welding and fabrication company in Toledo, OH. has a new patented theft deterrent designed just for catalytic converters . It makes too much work for the thieves in a hurry. The CatClamp is the only theft deterrent on the market designed exclusively to fight catalytic converter theft. It was in Newsweek online in January 09, 2008. Go to Catclamp.com the CatClamp is much cheaper than repairing a vehicle after catalytic converter theft.


"used gas?"



@ Traciatim: Sounds like a great expose for a local news program. Do you have a local station that does those sorts of things?

Maybe Tom Martino? He's somewhat national. Go here if you're unfamiliar with him. http://www.troubleshooter.com/

Charles D

The logistics of stealing gasoline make it seem like a bad theft for the penalty. I'm not familiar with it but can imagine how difficult and time consuming getting 20 gallons of gas out of a car would be for the theif. Then factor in how many cars run on with a half tank. I think for all that effort you could find more profitable uses of your time legally or illigally.

the Gooch

You don't need to steal gas from a car--it's easier to take the license plate.
Put the license plate on your car, fill up with gas, and drive off without paying.
Drop the stolen plates in a dumpster somewhere and go about your business.
There are hundreds of cars sitting in parking lots all day long unwatched while people work inside office buildings.
It's a pain, but if your SUV takes $100 to fill up, why not?

Mr. Stupid

dansage: Not true.

Traciatim: We're talking about $50 to $100 worth of platinum in a typical cat. I doubt the mechanic is looking to ruin his rep for that little.

Mitch: Sounds like an urban myth. You ever try drilling a hole in a gas tank? Sparks. Sparks + gas vapor equals...

Mr. Stupid


Sounds like this guy could have gotten away with it if he hadn't been so blatant about it! The real tip off is the $1.80 a gallon!