ROCK HILL, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Federal authorities made a major bust in a national crime ring involving catalytic converters. The bust landed 21 behind bars.

One group in New Jersey is accused of knowingly purchasing the stolen parts, extracting the metal powders from the core, and selling them to a metal refinery.

Those precious metals can be more valuable than gold.

“This is a 2002 Honda Accord, one of the most popular ones they steal,” said Tyler Huddleston, owner of Aftermarket Performance Services in Rock Hill. “We just did this one today, actually. They just did a clean cut on it.”

It’s the item sticky fingers have been after for the last couple of years: catalytic converters.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau says more than 52,000 of them were stolen in 2021, an increase of more than 1,200% from 2019.

In an operation to curb the crime, the Justice Dept. arrested 21 people in a nationwide catalytic convert theft ring, estimating the group made more than $545 million trafficking the parts.

“I probably get 20 to 30 a week we do here,” said Huddleston.

At APS in Rock Hill, replacing the catalytic converters unfortunately has become their bread and butter.

“You got people that have to come up with $500 to $800 out of pocket because somebody came through and stole something from them,” he said.

It’s big money for something that can be stolen in a matter of minutes.

“When they normally steal the converters, they yank the wires and just rip the wires right out of them,” Huddleston said. “So that’s just another expense you have to buy when they steal them.”

Authorities across the nation, including agencies in North Carolina, helped make the arrests and are hoping the sting will dismantle the national operation.

“You just hate to see people coming in here 60, 70, 80-year-old women coming in here who don’t know what’s wrong with their car, and sure enough, someone climbed up under it and stole the converter out from under it,” Huddleston said.

Catalytic converters are also hard to track. They don’t have VIN numbers or serial numbers, which makes them even more attractive to criminals looking to make a quick buck.