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Catalytic converter thefts are on the rise. Here's what's being done to crack down on thieves

Catalytic Converter Thefts
Posted at 5:40 PM, Apr 28, 2022

Catalytic converter thefts have reached record highs across the country. The Central Coast is also seeing an increase in thefts and it's hitting people in their wallets.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) reports in 2020 that theft claims saw a 325% increase from 2019. Using NICB's report, the data analysis website Been Verified estimates catalytic converter thefts more than quadrupled in 2021, seeing a 353% increase.

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But what is fueling the increase in thefts and what is being done to help stop it?

CATALYTIC CONVERTER THEFTS ON THE CENTRAL COAST

Video from an Orcutt neighborhood captured the thieves in action, sliding under a vehicle and sawing off the catalytic converter. It's a crime that can take less than three minutes but can cost victims thousands of dollars.

Tiffany Burdine of San Luis Obispo knows it firsthand. It was right around Christmas when her family realized they have been targeted by thieves.

"As soon as my husband started up the vehicle . Ok, it was, turn that off. It's loud. Our catalytic converter is gone."

Without insurance, it would’ve cost her $5,000 to replace the catalytic converter in her Honda. But she paid her $1,000 deductible and insurance covered the rest.

"That thousand dollars, that was the last two weeks... That was the Christmas pay. That was the 40 plus hours a week put in," Burdine sighed.

Her family was unable to use the car for six weeks while waiting for a replacement.

"We're a two-vehicle family and having only one vehicle to work with between getting the kids to school, from school to daycare, me getting to and from work, my husband… It was such a headache."

CALIFORNIA RANKED #1 IN CATALYTIC CONVERTER THEFTS

Catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed across the nation.

California drivers are hit the hardest – topping all other states in reported thefts.

On the Central Coast, there were more than 1,000 catalytic converters reported stolen in 2021 alone and hundreds more in 2022 so far.

The hardest-hit areas in 2021 were:

  • Unincorporated Santa Barbara County — 285 reported thefts
  • City of Paso Robles —175 reports
  • City of San Luis Obispo — 170 reports
  • City of Santa Maria — 160 reports from mid-September 2021 to mid-March 2022

Most often targeted are hybrids and trucks made by Toyota, Honda and Ford.

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WHY THIEVES TARGET CATALYTIC CONVERTERS

So why are catalytic converters a hot item for thieves?

"These catalytic converters are stolen off of vehicles and they're taken to recycling locations where they're turned in for money," explained Raquel Zick, Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office Public Information Officer.

Driving the spike in thefts is the increasing value of precious metals in catalytic converters — palladium, rhodium, and platinum — some more valuable than gold. As of April 2022, according to Kitco, an online precious metals retailer, gold is valued at $1,974 per ounce. Platinum is $988/oz, palladium is $2,286/oz, and rhodium is $17,900/oz.

Limited resources and supply chain issues are also contributing to the problem.

Scrap yards pay anywhere from $50 to hundreds of dollars per catalytic converter.

"What we're seeing is thieves taking advantage of what should be a legitimate market. One of the reasons could be because there is a lack of, or part of the reasons could be there is a lack of regulation for the recycling companies to be able to take these in with some sort of checks and balances for where the converter came from," Zick said.

HOW LAWMAKERS ARE CRACKING DOWN ON CATALYTIC CONVERTER THEFTS

Dozens of states have either enacted or firmed up existing legislation that would require recyclers to maintain records of purchases and anyone selling catalytic converters to show proof of ownership. The NICB has a full map showing the bills proposed or enacted across the country to combat catalytic converter thefts here.

Similar proposals cracking down on catalytic converter thefts are making their way through the California state legislature.

Senator Brian Jones, (R) Santee, introduced one of those measures.

"If the police pulls somebody over and they have three or five catalytic converters, which is a rare occasion where that would be appropriate, the police have no way of knowing that those catalytic converters are stolen," he said.

That’s why Sen. Jones introduced Senate Bill 919. If signed into law, it would require dealerships and retailers to mark catalytic converters with the vehicle identification number (VIN). It would also ban metal recyclers from buying catalytic converters without an untampered VIN and require recyclers to keep records of the seller’s identity.

"It (SB 919) does increase the fines and penalties for people that violate those laws," Jones said.

I reached out to lawmakers representing the Central Coast in the state legislature regarding these bills.

Senator John Laird said:

“In response to the widespread theft of catalytic converters in my district and across California, several of my colleagues in the legislature have dedicated their time and attention to craft multiple legislative solutions to prevent theft and make victims of this crime whole.

As California boldly implements solutions to curb harmful emissions and promote a greener transportation economy, the theft of these devices, that reduce pollution-causing emissions, is especially frustrating. I look forward to being provided the opportunity to review and vote on their bills in response to the documented increase in catalytic converter thefts since 2019, and the significant cost burden shouldered by Californians who are left to replace these converters.”

Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham sent a statement saying:

“Catalytic converter theft has unfortunately become a big business for California criminals. Between Prop 47’s reclassification of misdemeanor theft and California’s zero bail policies, criminals are emboldened. To deter the theft of catalytic converters and shrink the market for resale, I have supported a bill by one of my colleagues that would require recyclers to report their catalytic converter purchases to local law enforcement. In addition, the bill requires purchasers to record the sellers personal information.

By requiring the purchases of these stolen items to record and report each purchase, we can limit the opportunities for thieves to sell their stolen wares.”

HOW TO PROTECT YOUR VEHICLE

Until the law catches up with the growing trend of catalytic converter thefts, there are some things you can do to protect your vehicle:

  • Add a steel plate over the converter to make it harder for thieves to steal
  • Park in a well-lit area or a garage, if available
  • Install cameras and motion-detection lights

Zick also recommends, "You can put an owner applied number onto your catalytic converter so if it is stolen we can track it back later."

Tiffany Burdine plans on doing just that. She urges drivers, "Take the precautions to keep yourself protected because it is very costly and it is a very big inconvenience."

The Grover Beach Police Department has partnered with a local auto repair shop to etch serial or license numbers into catalytic converters for free. For more details about this program, click here.