LENOX -- A group believed to be part of a widely roving band of thieves has struck a major automobile dealership, stripping 23 trucks and vans 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 Chief Stephen O'Brien.
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.
"It's a shame that it happened, just part of doing business," said dealership owner George Haddad. "Thank God we live in a pretty decent community."
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 culprits 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 Infor mation Network (NESPIN), 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.
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.
Detective Jay Ball of the Milford Police Department, who has been coordinating the regional investigation for NESPIN, said he was surprised to learn of the Lenox incident since no new thefts had been reported in Massachusetts or Rhode Island recently.
"It's a large-scale, organized ring," he told The Eagle, noting that there have been cases reported in Connecticut and New Jersey last month.
"We're still investigating with other police departments," Ball added, "but there aren't too many leads at this point."
According to Deputy Police Chief Matthew King in Littleton, all the New England states, including New Hamp shire and Maine, also have been hit by what he termed "definitely a chronic problem."
National insurance companies have alerted businesses to the epidemic of thefts.
The outbreak has even spread to Great Britain, where 249 thefts were reported so far this year in the Leicestershire area of England. Bedford Insurance Services and other carriers in the United Kingdom have been urging drivers of vans and similar vehicles to park in a secure, well-lit area, if a garage is not available.
Catalytic converters are part of the exhaust system. The precious metals inside act as catalysts; when hot exhaust enters the converter, a chemical reaction occurs that renders toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons, into less harmful emissions.
According to Nationwide Insurance Services, a skilled thief can strip the device from the bottom of a vehicle in less than 5 minutes. A telltale sign for unsuspecting motorists is the deafening sound of a muffler-less car, according to an advisory from Nationwide.
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How to deter thieves
Thefts of catalytic converters have become an epidemic in New England, many parts of the U.S., and the United Kingdom. Stolen units can be worth $100 at scrap yards. Replacement cost is as high as $3,000. Toyota vans, pickups and SUVs are especially vulnerable because of their high ground clearance. The rising value of precious metals contained in the devices makes them attractive to thieves. Corporate fleets and vehicles parked for a long time in large numbers such as at company parking lots, mass-transit commuter lots and shopping centers are prime targets.
n Park in a secure, locked garage when possible; otherwise, seek well-lit areas.
n At shopping centers, park near a building entrance or near the access road where there is more traffic flow.
n Engrave or etch a vehicle's VIN number or license-plate number on the converter so it can be more easily traced when sold for scrap metal.
n Equip a vehicle with a highly sensitive alarm system that can detect even the slightest motion.
n Have a muffler shop secure the converter to the vehicle with two pieces of hardened steel welded to the frame.
Sources: Nationwide Insurance Services; New England State Police Information Network