It’s a crime that only takes a couple of minutes to pull off but can leave you holding the bill for thousands of dollars in repairs: Thieves are cutting catalytic converters from vehicles parked on streets and in driveways, looking to cash in on the valuable materials found inside.
“Just the precious metals that are in the catalytic converter are worth about $30,000 an ounce,” said Dale Snow, the parts and service director at Mossy Toyota in Pacific Beach.
Toyota Priuses are a big target for thieves because those pricey precious metals like platinum and rhodium burn more slowly in a Prius, meaning there’s more of them left inside to break off and resell. It’s a quick crime: Snow said thieves can take strip a car of one in less than three minutes.
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“Unfortunately for the last four to five months, we’ve seen a huge influx of these,” Snow said while showing NBC 7 a vehicle with a stolen catalytic converter. “This is our fifth one today…. We’re probably taking in 15 to 20 a week. It’s big! It’s sad!”
Snow said the thefts have become so commonplace that repair shops are having trouble getting replacement parts in a timely manner, meaning it can take weeks for drivers to get a new one.
NBC7 Investigates pulled police records from all over San Diego County and found that from 2019 to 2020, the number of catalytic converter thefts spiked by 150%. That’s more than double the thefts just year-to-year.
According to the police records, the 2100 block of Del Mar Heights Road has been targeted by thieves three times since last September -- the most of any block.
The ZIP code claiming the highest number of thefts is 92024 in Encinitas, with 64 reported since 2020. National City is next with 49 thefts, then San Marcos and La Mesa.
Catalytic converters are so easy to steal, thieves don’t even have to work in the darkness of the night. Our analysis found the most common time for thieves to steal catalytic converters was around 1:30 in the afternoon.
Protecting your vehicle & money
While NBC7 Investigates found many thieves are brazen enough to target vehicles in busy neighborhoods in the middle of the day, the cars most at risk are those parked in isolated areas for long periods of time.
“For the first 10 seconds that the car started it was fine,” said Tres Flook, a commercial pilot. “When the engine kicked in, though, I thought I was in a Harley Davidson.”
Flook has had his catalytic converter stolen twice from airport parking garages. The second time it happened, he knew before even starting the car.
“I just happened to glance underneath my car from a distance and there were two bolts on the ground,” Flook said. “I start it up and it’s gone.”
Now Flook has a shield underneath his car that makes it much harder to cut through the pipes and steal the catalytic converter. While it won’t stop thieves altogether, mechanics say a deterrent might just save consumers the cost of a new catalytic converter.
“If it’s not an easy target, they probably are going to go on to the next car,” said Nick Delaney, master mechanic at Aero Auto.
Delaney said a lot of Prius drivers are looking for shields to protect their catalytic converters after being hit by thieves.
“You look under there and you’ll see the tubes cut and the missing catalytic converter,” Delaney said.
The theft is covered if you have comprehensive insurance on your policy. Jeffery Spring, a spokesperson at the Automobile Club of Southern California,said that, while there isn’t a limit as to how many times your policy will cover the theft, it’s going to draw attention.
“Insurance companies would start looking a little more closely,” Spring said. “It’s in both parties’ best interest to prevent this from happening.”
Another risk is that if the cost of replacing a catalytic converter is higher than the cash value of your car, an insurance company may decide to declare the car a total loss.
“Those repairs can run anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000,” Spring said. “It depends on how many, too. Some cars have two catalytic converters.”
To protect your car, Spring recommends parking it in a garage if possible. Otherwise, stick to well-lit areas and streets that have more traffic on them. Finally, consider paying for a shield or cage to be installed around your catalytic converter.
Flook paid $500 for a shield but said it’s worth it if he doesn’t have to pay for another replacement.
“If the person really wants to get the third one on that vehicle they can,” Flook said. “But it’s going to be a lot harder and there’s much easier targets out there so they’ll probably move on.”