PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Shortly before 2:30 a.m. on Halloween, three men appeared in Justin Boyan’s driveway on College Hill.

Surveillance video from Boyan’s home camera shows two of the men approach his Toyota Prius, while the third appears to guard the door to the house. Quickly, one man jacks up the car while the other uses a power saw to cut out Boyan’s catalytic converter, a piece of the exhaust system.

One minute and 20 seconds after arriving, the men were driving away.

“My wife told me in the morning she thought she heard something in the night,” Boyan said. “She looked out the window and she just saw a car driving away.”

In the morning, the car gave the telltale sign: a loud roar upon starting, indicating the catalytic converter was gone.

Boyan is one of hundreds of people who have fallen victim to such a crime in Providence just this year, as cities across the country grapple with a rise in catalytic converter thefts.

The cost to replace the car part can be staggering — in the thousands of dollars — yet the crime was almost unheard of just a few years ago.

In 2017, Providence Police had no reported thefts of catalytic converters, according to data provided to Target 12. There were a handful of thefts in 2018 and 2019, and then 61 thefts were reported in 2020.

Then in 2021, the number of thefts skyrocketed to 387 in Providence. And in the first three quarters of 2022, there were already 542 thefts, outstripping last year’s total for the whole year. (Each reported theft could include multiple converters.)

“We have a sharp increase this year,” said Providence Police Capt. Timothy O’Hara in an interview with Target 12. “It’s because of the precious metal that’s inside the catalytic converter. They contain platinum, palladium and rhodium, and they’re at a very high price now.”

O’Hara calls catalytic converter thefts “low-hanging fruit” for thieves: valuable, easy to access and quick to steal.

“They happen everywhere in the city,” O’Hara said. “They happen at night, during the day, they happen in busy areas.”

The thieves get pennies on the dollar when they sell the car parts to scrap yards, but for car owners the replacement can cost thousands: Boyan’s replacement part cost $3,500, but was fortunately covered by his insurance.

“It’s like you’ve got a laptop strapped to the underside of your car,” Boyan remarked. “And they can just come and take it away.”

The steep rise in catalytic converter thefts is not unique to Providence. Target 12 gathered data from police departments across Rhode Island, finding a staggering increase over the past five years.

There were just eight thefts reported in 2017, according to the data from 37 police agencies obtained by Target 12, a number that shot up to 1,125 last year. This year so far there have been at least 1,466 catalytic converter thefts.

The highest number of thefts this year have been in Providence (542), Pawtucket (295), Warwick (123) and Cranston (94).

Police chiefs who responded to Target 12’s inquiry overwhelmingly noted the speed with which thieves can steal a converter; less than a minute or faster, depending on the vehicle.

While some cars — like the Prius — are targeted because they contain more precious metals, others are targeted due to easy access. A van, truck or SUV can be high enough for the crook to get under the car to steal the part without needing to use a jack, making it even faster.

Thieves have also targeted fleets of trucks, stealing multiple converters at a time. In North Smithfield, the town’s highway department had five catalytic converters stolen all at once on the morning of Sept. 1, according to a police report.

The highway department had surveillance video of the incident, but the suspect’s face was covered and couldn’t be identified. No arrests have been made, and the replacement converters cost more than $9,000.

It can be difficult to for police to arrest the people stealing converters, O’Hara said. The thefts are frequently caught on camera, but suspects often have their faces covered. The cars used in thefts can be unregistered or stolen. And even if police find a suspect vehicle, the evidence could be long gone; victims often report the crime on a delay, once they start their car and notice the converter missing.

“We catch people in the act sporadically,” O’Hara said.

Providence has only arrested two suspects in the 542 cases this year, according to a police spokesperson.

“Sometimes we’ll catch people in a separate investigation with a load of catalytic converters, but the problem is which vehicle they belong to,” O’Hara said. “There’s no identification stamp. So although we know they’re stolen, matching them up to a crime they’re connected to is almost impossible.”

Police say people can help by keeping an ear out for the piercing sound of the saw, often overlooked during the day as construction noise.

On a Monday morning this past spring, surveillance video shows pedestrians and cars passing by as an unknown suspect stole two catalytic converters from cars in a parking lot in Wayland Square.

The suspect, driving a dark pickup truck, is caught on camera around 11 a.m. parking next to an SUV and jumping out, at first crouching down to look under his own truck.

The person then rapidly disappears under the SUV. Thirty seconds later, he emerges with the converter, jumps back into his truck and drives away.

The victim left work at a nearby business six hours later, starting her car to hear the loud roar. She reported the theft to police; there have been no arrests in the case.

Warwick business owner tracks down thief

Fed up with the thefts, Warwick business owner Daniel Walser took matters into his own hands earlier this year.

Half a dozen catalytic converters were stolen from his business Walser Mobile Refrigeration on Brownlee Blvd. on Sept. 21, according to a police report. The case was first reported by the Warwick Beacon.

The business had already dealt with thefts at its previous location in Johnston, and had high-quality surveillance cameras in the Warwick lot.

Walser said the suspect stole multiple large diesel exhaust systems — a larger version of a catalytic converter — dragging them across the parking lot and through a hole he had cut in the fence. But the suspect left some of the converters on a hill in the woods, apparently planning to come back for them since he couldn’t fit all the stolen parts in his car.

So Walser put Apple AirTags inside the converters on the hill, leaving them there for the thief to pick up.

“Well, if they come back at least we’ll know about it,” Walser said. “Sure enough, he did come back on Monday.”

Walser tracked the first stolen converter to a business in Providence called Accurate Converter, where the suspect had already sold the part for cash. The business showed surveillance video to police and identified the suspect, William Hazard, who had sold converters to the business previously.

Walser’s surveillance video couldn’t be easily matched to Hazard, whose face was covered. But the next day, another converter containing an AirTag went missing.

Following the tracking device, Walser confronted Hazard at a Warwick gas station, where he had the massive converter in his sedan’s backseat.

“I said excuse me that’s mine,” Walser said. “He said, ‘someone gave it to me.’ I’m like no, it just left our property, it’s been tracked, I know you took it.”

Walser held Hazard until Warwick Police arrived and arrested him for possession of stolen parts and larceny, the latter crime charged as a “habitual offender” due to multiple prior convictions.

Hazard has been charged repeatedly for larceny and tampering with vehicles, and is currently at the ACI being held as a violator of his probation from a previous case.

Under arrest again in September, the police report claims Hazard told officers: “When I get out I’ll just go back over there, watch.”

“It’s frustrating,” Walser told Target 12. “I’m trying to keep people employed and send them out and get work done, and it just stops everything for me if I don’t have my service trucks, if I have to stop and repair my own vehicles instead of going out there to make money.”

Local and state laws aim to crack down on the market

Attention has recently turned to cracking down on the market for the stolen converters, with multiple states passing laws focused on scrap metal businesses and junk yards that purchase stolen parts.

The Providence City Council in April passed an ordinance requiring businesses to collect a long list of documents from the seller, including a copy of their driver’s license and car registration.

The ordinance also requires the business collect a copy of the bill of sale or other proof that the seller owns the catalytic converter.

“We will be checking,” O’Hara said. “It hopefully breaks the flow of the money between the thieves and the scrap metal yards.”

The only business to be brought before the licensing board under the new ordinance is Accurate Converter, O’Hara said, for the purchase from William Hazard back in September.

The business was ultimately issued a warning rather than a fine, according to Capt. Alyssa DeAndrade of the licensing bureau.

“We met with the owners of this establishment to discuss the incident,” DeAndrade said. “As this is a new ordinance, the city is using this as an opportunity to educate the business before taking any enforcement actions.”

DeAndrade said the city will soon be handing out copies of the seven-month-old ordinance to the roughly 70 businesses affected.

“As of now no other businesses have been cited or issued any violations in connection with this new ordinance,” DeAndrade said.

Brian Tetreault, the CEO of Accurate Converter, told Target 12 he wasn’t aware of the new city ordinance before this case, and now pledges to follow it and cooperate with police.

“We have every intention of following the law,” Tetreault said. “We never want to purchase a stolen converter.”

Tetreault said the bulk of Accurate Converter’s business is with other businesses, and they keep diligent records of their transactions.

“If it becomes untenable to do business with the general public, we don’t do it anymore,” Tetreault said. “We want to be part of the solution, not the problem.”

A similar state law was approved by the General Assembly in June, though it requires different documents than the Providence ordinance. Rather than a bill of sale proving ownership of the converter, the new state law requires the seller to provide the registration or VIN number of the car the part came from, in addition to the car registration of the person delivering the part.

Business-to-business transactions are exempted from the new state law.

“It’s not enough to just put someone in prison, we need to go after the people who are actually accepting catalytic converters that they know are stolen,” said state Rep. Joe Solomon, who introduced the House version of the new law.

The state law tasks Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office, which licenses precious metals dealers, with enforcing the law.

But so far no businesses have been hit with any violations, according to Neronha’s office.

“To date we have found no evidence that any salvage yard businesses have not complied with the requirements of the new statute,” said Neronha’s spokesperson Brian Hodge. “However, we are monitoring the situation closely, and if that changes, we will take the appropriate action.”

Hodge said the AG’s office is upgrading its computer systems to keep a record of catalytic converter sales from the scrap metal businesses that are required to comply with the new law.

“BCI Investigators are also visiting businesses to ensure that they are complying with all the law’s requirements,” Hodge said.

The rising crime has also caught the attention of federal investigators, who busted a multimillion catalytic converter theft earlier this month, arresting 21 people.

And in Congress, lawmakers are considering a bipartisan bill that would fund police departments or auto dealers that put identifying markings on catalytic converters for drivers.

“If the auto industry could come up with a way to harden the target … that would certainly help,” O’Hara said.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.