One of the biggest crime trends of the COVID-19 pandemic has no surefire protection, costs victims thousands of dollars and can generate huge profits for criminals overnight.
Catalytic converters are one of the most commonly stolen vehicle parts, targeted for precious metals that can bring in hundreds of dollars in resale value.
Ventura County is no exception to a trend that has risen across the United States. In the city of Ventura alone, for example, more than 229 thefts have been reported since Jan. 1, according to Detective Karl Reyes, who investigates street crimes for the Ventura Police Department.
“I’ve talked to detectives all the way up to Santa Barbara down to south LA,” Reyes said. “Some of these guys’ caseloads are so overwhelming they don’t even know where to start.”
Ventura may have been hit harder than other local cities, but it’s not the only area that has seen an increase in such thefts this year.
Detective Crystal Walker, a property crimes investigator with the Oxnard Police Department, said 128 catalytic converters have been reported stolen in the first eight months of 2021, up from 36 last year.
“It kind of goes in cycles, and this year, we’re hitting the peak,” Walker said.
Although authorities don’t expect the activity to slow down anytime soon, there are ways you can protect your vehicle from potential thieves.
Why are they stolen?
Catalytic converters are part of a vehicle’s exhaust system used to reduce gas emissions by converting them into less harmful substances. The chemical process uses several rare, precious metals — including platinum, palladium and rhodium — housed inside the converter.
The metals are collected at auto recycling centers, sometimes called “chop shops,” that pay for raw materials from cars and trucks.
“They’re not necessarily selling them to recycling centers here,” Walker said of where thieves take the stolen devices. “They’re going to LA and finding spots there.”
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, recycling centers tend to pay between $50 to $250 for each catalytic converter, depending on the amount of precious metals that can be recovered.
The devices are located on the vehicle’s undercarriage, allowing quick access for anyone with an auto body jack. They can be sawed off within minutes.
“The catalytic converter is basically a big, long tube,” Walker said, with a fatter section in the middle. Cutting off the two ends removes the entire device.
Reyes, the Ventura detective, said the vast majority of theft crews come from outside the county, particularly Los Angeles County. They tend to operate in small groups, with one person driving and one or more others operating the car jack and saw. Some homeowners have captured the crime on surveillance videos that show crews working with near-choreographed efficiency.
Law enforcement agencies around Ventura County have reported apprehending such crews, often as they perform coordinated nighttime efforts where multiple vehicles have been targeted. The suspects are sometimes found with multiple catalytic converters in their cars along with car jacks and reciprocating saws.
One victim’s tale
If you wake up one morning and turn on your car only to hear the engine rumbling much louder than normal, you likely had your catalytic converter stolen overnight.
Rico Rinaldi, a detective with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, recommends reporting the theft to police and gathering any evidence, including surveillance footage, that could help police identify the suspects. The loss will also have to be reported to your vehicle insurance company.
Ventura resident Bob Dickson recently went through the process earlier this year when his daughter’s 2005 Honda Element had the device sawed off over the Fourth of July weekend.
“You think it’s not going to happen to you until it does,” Dickson said.
Dickson reported the theft to his insurer and learned the loss was covered under the comprehensive coverage plan.
“We escaped with only having to pay the deductible,” he said.
Dickson said if his daughter’s car hadn’t been covered with comprehensive insurance, the bill would have been nearly $5,900.
The process to replace the converter ended up taking nearly two-and-a-half weeks, he said, although it could have taken much longer if required parts weren’t immediately available. His family was able to find a shop with a replacement unit in stock, so he only had to pay for a rental car while they waited. Had the part been unavailable for several months, though, Dickson said he would have needed to replace the car.
After getting the replacement unit, Dickson worked with Ventura police to find an auto body shop that installed a cover to deter future thefts.
“My advice to anybody is to at least research and consider putting some type of protective device on your car,” Dickson said. “If it can happen to us, it can happen anywhere.”
What kind of vehicles are targeted?
Any car manufactured after 1975 has a catalytic converter installed to comply with air pollution regulations. Despite their universality, not all cars are equal targets.
The top 10 vehicles targeted locally, according to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office, are:
- Toyota Prius
- Ford F250
- Honda Element
- Ford F350
- Honda Accord
- Ford Econoline
- Jeep Grand Cherokee
- Chevrolet Express
- Chevrolet Astro Van
- Ford Excursion
Vehicles with higher suspensions that allow easy access, such as the Ford pickup trucks on the sheriff’s list, are popular targets.
“It’s easy to get to them because those vehicles have a higher ground clearance,” said Reyes, the Ventura detective.
Hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, meanwhile, are targeted because their engines generate fewer emissions, leaving more of the precious metals in the converters untarnished.
“By way of their design, they’re not as affected as a full-gasoline vehicle,” said Rinaldi, the sheriff’s detective.
Location also plays a huge role in theft rates, authorities said. Many thieves look for a quick getaway route, opting for neighborhoods and commercial districts near freeway exits.
In Ventura, the Lowe’s Home Improvement store at 500 S. Mills Road is one such spot, Reyes said. Not only is the parking lot across the street from an onramp to Highway 101, he said, but the thieves’ preferred vehicles are frequently left unoccupied while drivers shop inside.
How to protect yourself
Law enforcement officials suggested several way to protect your catalytic converter.
If you’re able, park inside a private garage or behind a gate. Parking in a private driveway is preferable to leaving your vehicle on the street, authorities said.
Lighting and surveillance are helpful tools. Driveways that are well lit or illuminated by motion-activated lights and within range of security cameras help deter theft. The footage aids police if your converter is stolen.
In public settings, leave your vehicle in a crowded, visible area rather than a secluded parking spot.
You can also modify the devices.
Dozens of auto body shops throughout Ventura County offer free etching services thanks to partnerships with local law enforcement agencies. Your vehicle’s license plate number will be etched onto the converter to aid recovery if stolen. A police agency logo is spray painted onto the unit to deter thieves.
Vehicle owners can also buy a protective plate that makes it harder for thieves to steal the converter. The protective devices can can cost hundreds of dollars and are manufactured under various brand names, including Cat Security and CatShield.
Finally, authorities suggest checking with your car insurer to make sure your coverage will help cover replacement costs if your catalytic converter is stolen. Depending on your vehicle’s make and model, replacement costs can run thousands of dollars.
List of local etching sites
The following auto body shops and dealerships have partnered with local law enforcement agencies to offer complimentary catalytic converter etching services. Many also sell protective coverings.
- Camarillo Car Care Center, 2739 E. Daily Drive, 805-482-2853
- Camarillo Independent, 1955 E. Daily Drive #105, 805-987-8180
- Jiffy Lube, 55 W. Daily Drive, 805-388-1922
- Jiffy Lube, 274 Arneill Road, 805-482-4500
- Service One Car Care, 2145 Las Posas Road, 805-987-3177
- Xpress Lube, 4021 Adolfo Road, 805-388-0342
- Bob’s Radiator Shop, 562 Santa Clara Street, 805-524-2526
- De La Rosa Auto Repair, 665 Ventura Street, 805-524-0368
- Ernie’s Auto Care and Smog, 460 Ventura Street, 805-524-4477
- Fillmore Auto Electric and Tune, 405 Central Avenue, 805-524-7333
- Andy’s Automotive, 613 Fitch Avenue #1, 805-529-6666
- Chris’ Auto Connection, 476 Los Angeles Avenue #B-4, 805-523-9350
- Dave’s Auto Repair, 555 Spring Road #6, 805-523-7113
- Elite Auto Repair, 5240 Bonsai Street, 805-529-9100
- Fix Auto, 5395 Kazuko Court, 805-552-4205
- Hi-Tech Auto, 13806 Princeton Avenue, 805-529-8800
- Jiffy Lube, 797 Los Angeles Avenue, 805-523-1100
- Moorpark Auto Collision, 619 Fitch Avenue #5, 805-529-6227
- Recon to Go Auto Collision Repair, 613 Fitch Avenue #4, 805-674-2452
- World Auto Repair, 77 Park Lane #C, 805-523-7078
Oxnard and El Rio:
- Auto Tech, 2872 E. Vineyard Avenue, 805-988-1923
- AV Tire Service, 1610 South Oxnard Boulevard, 805-385-1192
- Big Brand Tires, 1313 South Oxnard Boulevard, 805-487-7883
- Big Brand Tires, 531 East Ventura Boulevard, 805-822-5555
- Gregorio’s Auto Repair, 515 Ventura Boulevard, 805-278-1382
- Kenz Muffler, 2818 West Wooley Road, 805-984-8187
- American Muffler, Brake and Radiator, 1320 Thousand Oaks Blvd, 805-495-8514
- Bender’s Automotive, 308 Giant Oak Avenue, 805-376-2497
- Conejo Precision Auto Repair, 50 N. Skyline Drive #5-6, 805-496-9421
- Conejo Valley Auto Center, 2561 Teller Road 805-342-0606
- Preferred Auto Centre, 3111 Thousand Oaks Blvd #6, 805-373-1223
- Reed’s Automotive, 57 Taylor Court, 805-374-9221
- Ricks Japanese Car Care, 37 Taylor Court, 805-373-9895
- Skyline Auto Repair, 50 N. Skyline Drive #4, 805-778,0060
- Thousand Oaks Toyota, 2401 Thousand Oaks Blvd, 805-497-2791
Jeremy Childs is a breaking news and public safety reporter covering the night shift for the Ventura County Star. He can be reached by calling 805-437-0208 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find him on Twitter @Jeremy_Childs.