Press "Enter" to skip to content

What to Make of the Rise in Catalytic Converter Theft in California

In September of last year, my car’s catalytic converter was stolen. As a college student with minimal experience with cars, I was only made aware by my neighbor, who informed me that the “horrible, growling noise” coming from beneath my car was a telltale sign that the catalytic converter was no longer there. The next step, he said, was to file a police report. Only then could I file a claim with my insurance.

In hopes of easing my frustration, my neighbor kindly assured me that I was not the only ‘victim’ that night. As it turned out, my neighbors—and most car-owning residents in California— are targets of this theft. The night my catalytic converter was stolen, my neighbor, a few doors down, had his swiped too. Perhaps due to an overwhelming quantity of similar reports, the Berkeley Police Department never followed up on my case. 

In the past few years, the theft of catalytic converters nationwide has increased dramatically. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, “in 2018, there were 1,298 catalytic converter thefts reported.” By 2020, the number of reported thefts increased to 14,433. In California alone, residents have also witnessed an uptick in catalytic converter theft. In August 2022, Fremont PD reported “300 stolen catalytic converters at a local business.” Reports of stolen catalytic converters have also been made in Pacifica and San Mateo in August of this year. 

Thieves target catalytic converters because they are easy to remove and can be sold for a hefty price. Catalytic converters are composed of three precious metals—platinum, palladium, and rhodium. These materials reduce pollution in engine exhaust by converting poisonous gases into water vapor, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Once extracted from the stolen catalytic converter, these precious metals can be sold for a high price. Estimates from 2020 found that “rhodium was valued at $14,500 per ounce, palladium at $2,336 per ounce, and platinum going for $1,061 per ounce.” 

The process of removing a catalytic converter from below the engine takes a few minutes at most. With the right tools and experience, catalytic converters can be removed in mere seconds. Surveillance footage from a resident’s home in Perris, California, from July, captured three individuals using a battery-powered saw to remove the residents’ catalytic converter. The theft itself took less than 30 seconds. The ease with which these converters can be stolen leaves most vehicles susceptible to theft. 

Catalytic converter thefts have become so widespread that even police departments have been targeted. The San Francisco Police Department released a statement concerning the multiple thefts of catalytic converters in the department’s marked trucks and vans. Prior to SFPD’s release of the statement, one of San Francisco’s officers was “injured after he was hit by a car during an attempt to stop two suspects from stealing a catalytic converter. These reports were filed in September, and still “no arrests have been made.” 

In response to the increase in catalytic converter theft in California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed two new bills that would discourage the theft and re-selling of catalytic converters. This legislation, authored by two Southern California lawmakers, was passed in September of 2022. The first bill, AB 1740, written by Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), “will require catalytic converter recyclers to include additional information in the written record, including year, make, and model of the vehicle from which the catalytic converter was removed….” This bill will also proscribe the buying of catalytic converters from individuals other than “a commercial enterprise or the vehicle’s owner,” — a provision that might effectively deter the anonymity and ease of catalytic converter theft. 

Alongside Assemblymember Muratsuchi’s bill, Governor Newsom also signed Senator Lena Gonzalez’s measure, SB 1087. This bill will similarly prohibit the purchase of “a used catalytic converter from anybody other than certain specified sellers,” which includes repair dealers, automobile dismantlers, and the registered vehicle owners themselves. According to a statement released by Governor Newsom’s office, Newsom believes that implementing these two measures will effectively curb the “big problem” of catalytic converter theft. 

Many California residents were elated to hear that both bills had been signed into law. The League of California Cities (Cal Cities), a publicly funded non-profit organization consisting of municipal and political leaders, stated that AB 1740 and SB 1087 were two of their “top legislative priorities” this year. California car owners were similarly invested in the signing of these two bills, pointing to the increasing costs of replacing stolen catalytic converters. 

While catalytic converter thefts were high in 2018, the number of reported stolen catalytic converters increased drastically during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Los Angeles Police Department reported a 300% increase in catalytic converter theft since the beginning of the pandemic. The National Insurance Crime Bureau speculates that the uptick in reported thefts is linked to the increase in the value and price of the precious metals in catalytic converters. In 2020, California led the nation in the highest reported thefts of catalytic converters — a figure still true as of 2022

Catalytic converter theft is widespread; however, certain vehicles are more likely to be ‘hit’ than others. According to Carfax, the ten most targeted cars “on the West Coast” are certain models of Hondas, Toyotas, Fords, Subarus, Jeep’s Patriot model, and Chevrolet’s Silverado model. These cars are low-emission vehicles that require “highly effective filtration systems, and therefore have “high-quality catalytic converters.” Low-emission vehicles’ catalytic converters have a higher concentration of the precious metals sought after by catalytic converter thieves. Elevated trucks and SUVs, as well as “routinely parked cars,” also have a greater likelihood of being targeted. Lifted vehicles offer car thieves easier access to the catalytic converter, reducing the amount of time it takes to cut out the converter from the underside of the vehicle. 

Fortunately, there are measures California car owners can take to reduce the likelihood of having their catalytic converter stolen. According to Allstate, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and American Family Insurance, there is a multitude of ways in which car owners can protect their vehicles. Here is a list of recommendations that any vehicle owner can follow: 

  • Park in well-lit areas 
  • Etch your VIN or license plate number onto the side of your converter 
    • In the case that your catalytic converter is stolen, the recycler can track the stolen auto part to your vehicle 
  • Regularly move your vehicle 
  • Park in monitored areas (i.e., parking garages, residential areas with cameras, etc.) 
  • Lock your vehicle, and set the alarm 

Other low-cost prevention techniques include:

  • Install anti-theft devices on your catalytic converter (i.e., catalytic converter shield or catalytic converter cage)
  • Weld your converter to the vehicle
  • Install a motion sensor light in your driveway 
  • Install a camera facing your vehicle 
    • In the case that your catalytic converter is stolen, surveillance footage may be helpful in identifying the thief 
  • Paint your converter  

While these recommendations are not sure-fire solutions, following these guidelines will likely reduce one’s chances of having their catalytic converter stolen. California car owners can only hope that AB 1740 and SB 1087 are silver bullets to solving the rise in catalytic converter theft. Nonetheless, many California residents are still wary that policy efforts will curtail catalytic converter theft, arguing that “there should be on-the-ground police response to what’s happening.” But there isn’t. Reports of catalytic converter theft, like mine, are going unnoticed, and similar bills to the recently implemented laws have done little to hinder catalytic converter theft. So what should we do? Are policy efforts enough? Or are police and additional community surveillance efforts needed to end automobile theft in California? 

Featured Image Source: ABC News

Comments are closed.