A line of vehicles at North Georgia Technical College (NGTC) in Clarkesville, Ga., waited on a recent October day for a free service coordinated by law enforcement meant to deter thieves from stealing catalytic converters. It marked the launch of an etching and painting process that matches the devices to the vehicle. Catalytic converters contain valuable metals that are harvested from the device and sold for reprocessing. While there are legal catalytic converter sales, there are also a growing number of illegitimate activities. Etching and painting, or marking, catalytic converters can be a deterrent and/or a signal that the device has been stolen.

Georgia’s Habersham County Sheriff’s Office partnered with local auto shops for the public awareness event Oct. 20 at NGTC’s Transportation Center to introduce Operation CAT Scratch. The program was developed in response to the significant number of catalytic converter thefts occurring in Habersham and around Georgia. ISRI is working with members and law enforcement to explore different marking program options in other states.

“I’ve made probably about five arrests for [stolen] catalytic converters,” sheriff’s Investigator Bob Kushman says. “But that’s not even close to the amount that gets stolen. We’ve got [converters] that we confiscate from people, and we know they’re stolen, but we can’t prove it because there’s no [identifying] numbers.” The new marking program will give police more ability to charge suspects found in possession of stolen property.

Operation CAT Scratch involves tagging a vehicle’s catalytic converter so it can be traced. The part is sprayed with orange high-heat resistant paint and part of the vehicle’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is etched into the converter. The information is then entered into a database maintained by the sheriff’s office.

ISRI, auto recycler Pull-A-Part and ISRI member, the Georgia Recyclers Association, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau worked to develop the method for marking converters, says Steve Levetan, Pull-A-Part’s executive vice president and past chair of ISRI’s Auto Recycling Committee. Levetan began advising the Habersham County Sheriff’s Office earlier this year about how to get a marking program up and running.

“We were able to work with the sheriff’s office and provide them with the information that they needed to make this into a successful program,” Levetan explains. “This is the first of these sorts of programs to actually get off the ground in Georgia, and we’re really proud of that.”

In 2020, Habersham County deputies arrested five people from South Carolina caught stealing catalytic converters off of local church vehicles. In April 2022, the sheriff’s office reported a string of catalytic converter thefts and in May, they arrested a Clarkesville man suspected of stealing them.

“Since we started publicizing [Operation CAT Scratch], catalytic converter theft reports have dropped off,” Kushman says. “If that’s happenstance, I don’t know. I’m not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

State Sen. Bo Hatchett, (R-Cornelia) has helped spread the word about the marking procedure. Last summer, county workers marked his Ford F-150 pickup’s two catalytic converters during a demonstration for local police. “Catalytic converter theft is a big deal, and we’re doing everything we can to prevent it,” he says.

Parking in well-lit areas near security cameras and motion-sensor lights can help deter thefts, and now, law enforcement hopes so will Operation CAT Scratch. “Having the database [of vehicles matched with catalytic converters] will help us prove thefts,” Kushman says. “Also, if [thieves] try to grind off the serial number, we can charge them with altering a vehicle ID number.”

ISRI and its partners are working with other law enforcement agencies and recyclers around the country to stop materials theft. Find more information here.

Photo Courtesy of ISRI.