Read an updated version of this story here.

Thursday July 26, 2012

LENOX -- A group believed to be part of a regional ring of thieves has struck a major automobile dealership, stripping 23 pickups, vans and SUVs of valuable catalytic converters that can fetch up to $100 each at scrap metal dealers.

The heist was discovered at mid-afternoon on Wednesday, according to Lenox Police. Officer William Colvin was called to the Haddad Motors Group back lot on Pittsfield Road (Route 7 & 20) after an employee discovered the anti-pollution device that has been standard on vehicles since 1975 was missing from a new Toyota Tundra pickup.

Upon further investigation, the dealership found catalytic converters had been removed from 23 vehicles. The total replacement value of the units is put at about $60,000, said Haddad business manager Thomas Sanchez.

Lenox Police have no leads so far, but Colvin has been collecting video surveillance tapes from the dealership as well as surrounding motels and gas stations. The thieves struck sometime during the overnight period late Tuesday or early Wednesday, according to police.

Rings of thieves targeting pickups and other vehicles with high ground clearances have been active in recent months nationwide, from New England to the Santa Cruz, Calif., area as well as the Midwest and south to Atlanta.

According to the New England State Police Information Network, an upsurge of thefts has been reported regionally in recent months. Toyota dealerships are most often targeted, the state police reported, since vehicles such as the Tundras, Tacomas and Siennas can be easily accessed because of their high ground clearances.

An entire catalytic converter can be removed with a wrench, police said.

Toyota catalytic converters have no serial numbers, making them especially inviting targets for thieves, who can sell them to scrap metal dealers because they contain precious metals, including platinum, palladiuim and rhodium.

In recent months, Toyota dealers in Milford, Littleton and North Attleboro have been hit, state police reported, in addition to others in Middletown and Westerly, R.I.

National insurance companies have alerted businesses to the epidemic of thefts, as have major firms in the United Kingdom, where widespread thefts of the units also have been reported.

An updated and expanded version of this article will in future editions of The Eagle.

To contact Clarence Fanto: cfanto@berkshireeagle.com or (413) 496-6247. On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.