Most cars on the road are equipped with a part that could be considered to thieves as somewhat of a hidden gem.
Thefts often happen in the middle of the night and span just a matter of seconds, but they leave owners with a replacement bill that can reach into the thousands.
What’s the loot? Catalytic converters.
Catalytic converters are toxin and pollutant filter connected to your car’s exhaust system. The valuable metals within, like platinum and gold, make them a target for anyone looking to make a couple hundred bucks illegitimately.
Thieves have been stealing catalytic converters for years, but recent reports indicate an uptick and the types of cars they're targeting could be changing, too.
A lot of catalytic converter theft victims have the same story. We’ll let Danny Huerta tell it.
“It sounded like a hot rod and didn't drive normal either,” Huerta said, describing what his girlfriend’s car sounded like the morning after its converter was chopped.
Sounds about right. A quick look under the car revealed some exposed wires and a gap in the exhaust tubing.
Converters are relatively unrestricted in the car’s undercarriage, so stealing them can be a breeze.
"It's terrible. It's pretty much half the value of the car,” Huerta said. “My girlfriend doesn't make a lot of money and finding another part is $2,300."
Freddy Ortiz, an auto technician at Brake Stop says experienced thieves can do the job in 60 to 90 seconds. This converter theft caught by security cameras in Torrey Highlands took less than 80.
“It’s in the middle of the night. Two, three seconds of a saw. Who's going to wake up and call police about it?” Huerta said.
He says his girlfriend’s insurance won't cover the theft. They live in an apartment and they have to park the car on the street.
New reports out of the San Francisco Bay Area show a spike in these crimes involving Toyota Prius's, which is exactly what Huerta’s girlfriend drives.
Huerta realized his girlfriend’s hybrid wasn’t the only target when he started calling shops looking for quotes on a new converter.
"The number I heard was around 10, I was probably the 10th caller looking for this exact part,” he said.
Ortiz says victims need to do their homework to make sure the replacement part is approved in California.
"When it comes smog time, their vehicle doesn't pass for smog and then they have to spend money to replace the converter they just bought,” he said.
San Diego County Sheriff’s Department investigators say they haven't noticed anything unusual as far as an uptick in converter thefts go. A San Diego Police Department spokesperson told NBC 7 "I do not have the ability to pull up theft reports by theft item.”
Last summer, the District Attorney's office fined a Spring Valley recycling company $90,000 for improper processing of catalytic converters and other parts purchased from independent sellers.
Under the Business and Professions Code, recycling companies must collect vehicle identification numbers from sellers or gather information from the sellers on how exactly they got a hold of the parts. Companies must also wait three business days before paying sellers so that police have time to verify information given by the seller.