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Auto shops, police are fighting rise in catalytic converter thefts

Thousands of catalytic converters have been reported stolen from cars in San Diego County. The thieves are being dubbed "cat burglars." What auto shops and police are doing to prevent the thefts from happening

Thieves stole catalytic converters from Vista resident Amanda Hendrix twice. The first time, her converter was stolen three days before Christmas.

“Thankfully insurance took care of it. The police came, they told us, ‘park it in the driveway under a light,’” she said. “So we did everything they said, then April came along and it happened again.”

RELATED: There's Big Money In Stolen Catalytic Converters

The second time around, her ring security camera captured footage of the theft happening. Her car was jacked up in the middle of the night and the converter was stolen in under four minutes.

“It's very frustrating. I’m a light sleeper anyway. It adds a level of anxiety that you feel. Those are your private things and to have somebody coming and damaging it and taking it apart, it felt like such a violation,” she said.

Hendrix is not alone in her feelings. This year, more than 1,500 catalytic converter thefts have been reported in San Diego County, and cameras have captured thefts sometimes happening in broad daylight in public places.

IMG-4277.jpg
Tania Thorne
Pictured, the underside of a Toyota Prius with its catalytic converter in the middle of image. Escondido, Calif. November 22, 2021.

Catalytic converters reduce harmful emissions put off by vehicles. Thieves target converters because they contain platinum, rhodium and palladium, precious metals that have gone up in price in the last year.

An analysis done by the Carlsbad and Oceanside Police Departments said that the price per ounce for platinum is $1,028 and $1,997 for palladium. The price per ounce for rhodium is $11,000.

Toyota Prius converters contain more of these metals, making them targeted the most.

Auto shops, police are fighting rise in catalytic converter thefts

Speaker 1: (00:00)

Thousands of catalytic converters have been reported stolen from cars in San Diego county surveillance videos, show thieves, getting away with the converter before anyone notices KPBS reported. Tanya thorn takes a closer look at how this is happening.

Speaker 2: (00:17)

They're being dubbed cat burglars, but they're not after your jewels. They're target catalytic converters apart found underneath cars that reduces their harmful emissions. Thieve stole catalytic converters from Vista resident, Amanda Hendricks twice. The first time her converter was stolen three days before Christmas. Thankfully

Speaker 3: (00:42)

The, um, insurance took care of it. They told the police came, they told us, park it in the driveway under a light that will discourage. So we did it, everything they said. Um, then April came along and happened again.

Speaker 2: (00:57)

This time her ring camera got footage of the theft happening. Her car was jacked up and the converter stolen in under four minutes.

Speaker 3: (01:06)

It's very frustrating. I'm a light sleeper anyway. And then it just, it adds a level of anxiety that, you know, you, you feel like those are your private things, you know, and to have somebody coming and damaging it, taking it apart, you know, and it just, it felt like such a violation.

Speaker 2: (01:24)

And she's not the only one this year, more than 1500 converter thefts have been reported in San Diego cameras have captured thefts happening in broad daylight in public places. But why have catalytic converters become a hot commodity? The parts contain platinum and Roadium and the price per ounces for these precious metals has gone up in the last year. Toyota Prius converters contain more of these metals, making them the biggest targets

Speaker 4: (01:51)

And they're cutting them anywhere from here to there wherever they can. And, um, run off with them, put 'em in the trunk and leave. You know,

Speaker 2: (01:57)

Tony English owns wholesale performance muffler in Escondido. He says he sees cars whose can converters have been stolen every week, especially after the weekend, they

Speaker 4: (02:07)

Steal the catalytic converters and they sell 'em to recyclers. You know, uh, most of the legit recyclers won't buy 'em, but there are, uh, you know, they, they trickle it down somehow and they get 'em sold somewhere.

Speaker 2: (02:18)

Some insurances do cover stolen catalytic converters, but they don't cover the shield that protects the converter from theft. And

Speaker 4: (02:27)

That is a Prius shield to keep from steel and Prius. CATA

Speaker 2: (02:31)

Converter English says he's installing more of them.

Speaker 4: (02:34)

Prius is for instance, are $3,600 just in parts when somebody steals your CATA converter. So a $500 shield really sounds like a really good investment, you know, while the shields

Speaker 2: (02:44)

Attack, the converter law enforcement is trying to crack down on the thefts happening across the

Speaker 5: (02:49)

County. What's happening before is if someone was contacted with, um, catalytic converters, say in the middle of the night, and we didn't, we weren't able to link 'em to a crime that was, you know, what we, we believe was stolen property, but, um, we needed a victim to, you know, file a case matched up to a car. Lieutenant

Speaker 2: (03:09)

B Barrett with the Escondido police department says the district attorney's office has given police the green light to start making arrests. In

Speaker 5: (03:17)

Speaking with this to attorney's office, they're saying there is no other reason to have these things in the middle of the night, um, and they are stolen property. So we have the probable cause to make that arrest and they will file on those cases.

Speaker 2: (03:29)

Lieutenant Barreth says since no arrests were being made due to the pandemic, these were getting bold. So bold that in August thief stole a catalytic converter men, Escondido police department, van surveillance footage helped police catch the

Speaker 5: (03:43)

Thieves. Tula Vista was able to make a stop on that vehicle. About four days later, um, there were some catalytic converters in that vehicle at the time. Um, unfortunately because of the timeframe difference between the, the, the days that we didn't get, uh, a conviction on our case. But I mean, the, the person was, uh, contacted by law. Enforce

Speaker 2: (04:00)

Police departments have also hosted events where community members can get their catalytic converters engraved with their VIN number in case it is ever stolen. Officials recommend parking your vehicle inside a garage or in a wallet area, getting security cameras and alarms, and consider getting a cat shield to protect the converter.

Speaker 1: (04:20)

Joining me as KPBS, north county reporter Tanya thorn and Tanya. Welcome. Thank

Speaker 2: (04:26)

You, Maureen.

Speaker 1: (04:27)

Now the theft of catalytic converters is one of the hot topics on my next door, social media site. How did you get interested in the story? I

Speaker 2: (04:36)

Mean, it's exactly that right, Maureen. I think we've all heard of these thefts happening. We've seen them. I mean, we've seen countless surveillance videos on our next door app on Facebook and it's just, it's popping up everywhere. So I think we've all known somebody or seen somebody that's been impacted by these theft. So it's just this problem that seems to be happening countywide.

Speaker 1: (04:59)

And are there hots spot where a lot of these thefts take place or is it, as you say all over the county?

Speaker 2: (05:05)

You know, when I started this, I originally wanted to gather data from all of our local police departments, but that was proving to be really difficult. And you know, it, it looked like no city or police department wants to be the one that has the most thefts happening. Right. But after gathering some data, it really looks like city of San Diego definitely has the most reports just because of the size of the city. I mean, they've had over a thousand reports made, but you know, this is something that is happening countywide and even statewide. I mean, it's really happening everywhere.

Speaker 1: (05:37)

Now, if you get your catalytic converter stolen, can you still drive your car?

Speaker 2: (05:43)

Well, the biggest giveaway that your converter has been stolen is that screechy sound. It makes as soon as you turn the key. So that's the biggest giveaway. If you hear that sound, you know, your converter has more than likely been stolen and technically the car is still drivable, but the entire trip will be an eerie, loud and screechy ride. So it's probably best to get it towed just for safety.

Speaker 1: (06:05)

The reason why the converters were being stolen, always mystified me. But your report says it's because of the metals that they contained, are they really so valuable,

Speaker 2: (06:15)

You know, really are. And it's why thiefs keep stealing them. The prices of the metals do go up and down. And the way it works is a thief steals a converter and sells them to a recycler. The thieves are getting a couple hundred bucks, maybe four to $500 for each converter. The recyclers are the ones that are making the bigger money depending on the market value of the metals the time. And they have their way of extracting those precious metals that are found inside the catalytic converters.

Speaker 1: (06:44)

The speed of the thefts is amazing. Considering it's not easy to get underneath the car to remove the converters. How is it usually done? You

Speaker 2: (06:52)

Know, it is amazing. I've seen so many videos and they're all under four or five minutes. And from what I've seen is that thieves usually come equipped with only a couple of things. It's usually a carjack, a handheld saw and a flashlight, right? Because they're probably doing this at night and they are very quick. I mean, they can get under there, Jack up the car and they have a lookout. Usually they're with somebody else. Someone's looking out to see if anyone is watching. I mean, they are in and out. It is really amazing.

Speaker 1: (07:21)

Let's talk about the catalytic converter shields that you mentioned in your report. Do they really make it impossible to steal these things?

Speaker 2: (07:29)

You know, I learned that it's not impossible, but it does provide an extra barrier that these things have to get through. So usually what is happening is that a thief C one of these shields is covering the converter. They're more than likely going to move on to another cart, just because it's gonna take them more time to get to the converter. It might ruin their saw or their whatever they're using to steal these things. So it seems like it's definitely deteriorating the thieves from concentrating on that car and moving on to one without a shield.

Speaker 1: (07:58)

Now that the county da has given permission for police to make arrests. When someone is found with a catalytic converter, what kind of charges is the suspect facing?

Speaker 2: (08:09)

So police were unable to make any arrests because of the booking restrictions due to the pandemic. But now the da has given them the green light to start making arrests. Because if someone is pulled over the middle of the night and they have, you know, two, three catalytic converters in their trunk, it is very probable that they have just stolen those converters. So because it just is so much money to replace these things. We're talking about three to four, $5,000 to get a catalytic converter replaced that is over the $950. So this is automatically a felony. And so the da will start filing cases for these thieves.

Speaker 1: (08:46)

And tell us more about the effort to get VIN numbers put on catalytic converters. Yeah.

Speaker 2: (08:51)

So, you know, if AIE is found with a couple catalytic converters in their trunk, and we can't identify who those catalytic converters belong to, if a VIN number is engraved on this converter, then it really helps the police locate a victim. And that way the case can be complete. And there is a, an entire report that is filed and this really helps prosecute the thief. So a lot of auto shops have been working with law enforcement to get the community, to come out and get their VIN numbers engraved on their catalytic converters, because it's become such a problem.

Speaker 1: (09:24)

You know, we've seen so many things arise during the pandemic kind of because there was a pandemic, does law enforcement think that the theft of catalytic converters is something that is two these strange times or something that's gonna last?

Speaker 2: (09:39)

You know, I mean, the thefts of catalytic converters definitely increase peaks of the pandemic. I mean, a lot of people were struggling financially. And so apparently it's easy money because it keeps happening. They're able to get them sold somewhere. But, you know, it's, it's also that these, the price of these metals are, are high again. So if, if it's easy money and the thief see that they can get away with it in four to five minutes and they're making four or 500 bucks every night, you know, maybe even just stealing one is worth it to them. So it's definitely a result of the pandemic and the price of the metals. But yeah, and so law enforcement is really hoping that now that they are able to make arrests, that the thefts of these converters will ultimately go down.

Speaker 1: (10:21)

I've been speaking with KPBS north county reporter, Tanya thorn, Tanya. Thank you.

Speaker 2: (10:26)

Thank you.

Tony English, the owner of Wholesale Performance Muffler in Escondido, said he sees cars whose converters have been stolen every week, especially after the weekend.

“They steal catalytic converters and they sell them to recyclers. Most of the legit recyclers won't buy them, but they trickle them down somehow and get them sold somewhere,” he said.

“They steal catalytic converters and they sell them to recyclers. Most of the legit recyclers won't buy them, but they trickle them down somehow and get them sold somewhere.”
Tony English, owner of Wholesale Performance Muffler

While some insurances do cover stolen catalytic converters, they don’t cover so-called “cat shields,“ which protect the converter from theft.

English said he's installing more of the shields and often stops Prius owners to suggest they get one.

“Priuses are $3,600 in parts when somebody steals your catalytic converter, so a $500 shield sounds like a really good investment,” he said.

Now law enforcement is trying to crack down on the thefts happening across the county. Even if someone is stopped with catalytic converters on them, police could not link those car parts to a victim, said Lt. Bode Berreth with the Escondido Police Department.

CATALYTIC CONVERTER THEFTS-page-001 cropped.jpg
City of Carlsbad Police Department
Map of San Diego County showing catalytic converter thefts by car type.

“We needed a victim to file a case, match it up to a car,” he said.

Berreth said the District Attorney’s office has given police the green light to start making arrests.

”They're saying, 'there is no other reason to have these things in the middle of the night and they are stolen property,'” he said. ”So we have probable cause to make that arrest and they will file on those cases.”

Berreth said no arrests were being made for catalytic converter thefts due to the pandemic. Thieves that were caught were receiving citations and released, which made the thieves bold.

Bold enough that in August, thieves stole a catalytic converter from an Escondido Police Department van used to transport youth to sporting events.

Surveillance footage helped police catch the thieves.

“Chula Vista was able to make a stop on that vehicle about four days later,” Berreth said. ”There were some catalytic converters in that vehicle at the time. Unfortunately, because of the time frame difference between the days, we didn't get a conviction on our case but the person was contacted by law enforcement.”

Police departments have also hosted events where community members can get their catalytic converters engraved with their VIN number. Officials also recommend parking vehicles inside a garage or in a well lit area, getting security cameras and alarms, and getting a cat shield to protect the converter.