Frank Cullinane knew the moment he started his car on a cold morning just before Christmas that something was very seriously wrong.
“A sound like a jet plane came out of it so I switched it off straight away,” said the retired garda from Glasnevin, north Dublin. While he didn’t immediately realise it, he had just become Ireland’s latest victim of catalytic converter theft.
Other victims of the same crime have told The Irish Times of catching well-drilled and lightning-quick three- and four-man gangs – “like Formula 1 mechanics” – outside their properties during identical robberies.
They come equipped with very large car jacks, to lift a car off the ground in seconds, and electronic tools to cut the catalytic converters from underneath the vehicles, before they flee in waiting cars.
Figures obtained by The Irish Times from the Garda show that in 2017 just 79 catalytic converter thefts were recorded, increasing to 96 thefts in 2018. However, in 2019 the crime increased exponentially in the Republic with 989 thefts recorded.
The latest data, for 2020, shows 1,014 thefts recorded in the first 9½ months of last year, or on course for 1,300 catalytic converters thefts by year end; a 13-fold increase in just two years. Some 75 per cent of the crimes last year were recorded in Dublin.
Cullinane (78) says when his converter was taken his two cars were parked in the driveway of his house. “About 5 o’clock in the morning three or four fellas came in. I was sleeping, at the most, a few yards from where it happened. The noise woke up a woman on the road. She came out with her dog but these guys just jumped into their car and away they went. I drove the car that day and it was all right. They seemed to come back the next night and that’s when they took the converter.”
Cullinane’s repair job, including a replacement converter, came to €1,390. While he was happy to go on the record and tell his story, other victims who spoke to The Irish Times were more reluctant, citing safety. Nonetheless, they told stories of brazen criminals striking during day and night.
A woman in her 30s explains how the catalytic converter was stolen from her Toyota Prius – one of the most targeted vehicles – outside her house from a middle-class suburb of Dublin during Christmas 2019.
She “heard a drilling noise at about 4am” and didn’t realise it was somebody outside cutting a part out from underneath her car.
“The next morning I started the car and got this thundering sound from it. I got the AA out they told me ‘that’s your cat converter gone’.”
She then paid €2,000 to have the car fixed before it was targeted again two months later, she suspects by the same gang coming back for more. But this time she disturbed the men as they had jacked up her car, again outside her home, and were working under it trying to cut out her new converter.
“I heard them and flew down and opened the door. There was three or four of them, they were masked. Luckily I had caught them and they were scared enough . . . they ripped the jack out and slammed the car down; literally just ‘bang’. And then they sped off. There was only a little bit of damage to my car, which I got fixed for not much expense.
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“It took these guys only about 90 seconds to do it. In 90 seconds they’re under the car, they’ve jacked it up, they just have to saw [the converter] off with power tools. They’re that fast; they’re like mechanics from a Formula 1 team.
“They didn’t shout at me, they weren’t aggressive towards me. They shouted something like ‘get the f**k out of here’. I think they were just startled they’d been interrupted and they wanted to get out of there immediately. I roared at them at the top of my voice.”
A patrol car was in the area and pursued the gang in a “high-speed chase”, though the thieves managed to escape.
“The guards seemed to be aware these guys were in the area, like they had had a few reports of other [catalytic converter robberies] that night,” said the victim.
The converters are made of a honeycomb structure designed to cleanse engine fumes as they pass through the exhaust. The metals used in the converters – platinum, palladium and rhodium – have surged in value, meaning their scrap metal value was now very high. There is also a market for converters to be used in other cars.
Each converter can be sold on the black market for between €300 and €600, though in one case that reached the courts in recent years the suspect had stolen 20 converters, which the court valued at €20,000.
The Garda believes thieves are carrying out surveillance on residential streets as well as public car parks, golf clubs, offices and hotels to identify cars to target.
“They’ll either strike there and then if they spot a car with a ‘cat’ in a car park. Or they’ll find a number of cars parked outside houses in the same area and they’ll come back and do a number of these robberies in rapid succession,” says a garda, adding the gangs often buy cars from scrap dealers and use them during the robberies as they have no registered owner.
A Dublin-based mechanic says his garage has at times dealt with three or four victims per week. A spate of crimes would usually occur in the same place before the thieves would move on.
“The common cars hit are the likes of the Toyota Yaris, the Toyota Prius, Ford Transit. The Kia Sportage is another one; those ones are expensive, about €2,000 to buy.
“On average you are looking at around €1,350 to replace a converter, but it can be a lot more expensive depending on the car and the damage done to wiring if the converter is ripped out.”
Conor Faughnan of AA Ireland says drivers should park in well-lit locations, opt for supervised car parks when they can and avoid parking in a location that may be very dark for long periods.
“For all of that, catalytic converter thefts have happened in places like golf club car parks, which you would think were supervised and safe,” he says.
“We’d advise [motorists] to stay well clear and call the guards if you disturb these guys. Do not attempt to intervene; it’s only a catalytic converter. You may be incredibly angry, but it’s not worth risking injury.”
One victim said he had no choice but to confront a gang as he found them in his back yard just after 11am one day two weeks ago.
He heard a car pulling into his yard on the gravel surface and in the few seconds that it took him to walk out his back door and into the yard the robbery was well under way. Three men had arrived into the yard, in a suburban area of Co Dublin, in a car. They had gently nudged his electrical gates with the front of their car until the gates broke open, allowing them to drive in.
Once in the yard, two of the men – wearing hats and scarves to hide their faces – jumped out of their car; one quickly placed a very large car jack under his hybrid vehicle and raised it off the ground. His accomplice moved under the vehicle and began using electrical hand-held cutting tools to cut away the section of the exhaust mechanism containing the catalytic converter.
The third man – wearing a PPE face mask – remained in the gang’s vehicle, turning it to ensure it was facing out into the street, ready for a quick getaway.
Having seen what was happening from his kitchen window the victim immediately grabbed his phone, walked into his yard and began recording the men while shouting at his girlfriend to call gardaí.
“They were as calm as you like; that was one of the really notable things about it. One of them shouted for me to stay back,” the victim said. “They’d brought specialist equipment with them. The chassis of the jack they had must have been more than a metre long.”
Even when the victim threw a bicycle in the path of the gang’s car to block it, one of the men pulled the bike out of the way, and the driver nudged the car forward to ready for the escape. All the while the third man kept cutting away under the victim’s vehicle; determined to get the converter despite that fact that the victim was on the scene and filming.
Once the converter was cut free the men lowered the victim’s car and jumped in to the waiting vehicle with the jack and stolen converter and were driven off at speed. The victim’s Toyota Prius cost just more than €1,300 to have repaired.
“I got an estimate to get the electronic gates fixed and that was about €1,300 as well,” the victim says. “You know, people talk about ‘organised crime’. . . these guys were so, so organised. They knew where the car was, they expertly pushed the gate open, they turned their car during the crime.
“Even the small electrical saw they had; it was small enough to put into the cavity where the catalytic converter is and they cut away about 1½ metres of exhaust pipe. The preparation that went into it, even their manner and how brazen they were; so, so organised. This wasn’t chaotic at all, it was premeditated, cool.
“I was stabbed before, years ago, and so I had no intention of actually getting in front of these guys. My forlorn idea was that I might slow them down so the guards might get there. But they were in and gone in about two minutes, maybe slightly less. The guards would want to be out on the road to catch them. They’d clearly done this many, many times before. This was Fast and Furious kind of stuff.”