By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - U.S. authorities on Wednesday said they have taken down a nationwide ring to steal thousands of catalytic converters from cars and trucks, charging 21 people and seizing millions of dollars in assets.
Various defendants were accused in separate indictments unsealed in Sacramento, California, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, of crimes such as transporting and receiving stolen goods across state lines, and conspiring to commit money laundering.
Catalytic converters are vehicle exhaust devices that convert toxic gases into safer emissions.
They can be stolen in less than one minute, often lack identification details that can make them easier to track, and can fetch more than $1,000 on the black market.
The U.S. Department of Justice said many stolen converters were sold to DG Auto Parts LLC of Freehold, New Jersey, which allegedly sold precious metal powders it extracted from the devices through a "de-canning" process to a metal refinery for more than $545 million.
Authorities are seeking the forfeiture of that sum, after seizing other assets including homes, bank accounts, luxury vehicles and cash. Attorney General Merrick Garland said 32 search warrants were executed in the takedown. The alleged scheme began about three years ago, prosecutors said.
"This national network of criminals hurt victims across the country," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement. "They made hundreds of millions of dollars in the process -- on the backs of thousands of innocent car owners."
DG Auto markets itself as that state's leading buyer of catalytic converters. Its owner Navin Khanna, 39, was charged in both indictments.
The company did not answer calls seeking comment and was not accepting messages during business hours. Khanna could not immediately be located for comment.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler)