Nov 27, 2023 - News

Bay Area car owners still face catalytic converter theft concerns

Photo of a catalytic converter under a car

A brand-new catalytic converter sits on a car lift in July 2022 in San Rafael, California. Photo: Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Catalytic converters are a hot commodity in the Bay Area. The anti-pollution devices located underneath cars — packed with rare precious metals — have been stolen in record numbers in recent years.

State of play: Busts this year have highlighted crime networks built around the devices.

  • One network taken down in June targeted cars across the Bay Area and led to the theft of 240 catalytic converters, according to local investigators.

By the numbers: There have been more than 1,200 catalytic converters stolen and 439 damaged this year, according to San Francisco Police Department data provided to Axios.

Details: It's become such a widespread issue that San Francisco Supervisor Joel Engardio partnered with SFPD this year to launch a free program etching vehicle identification numbers on residents' catalytic converters in a bid to deter thefts.

  • Engardio represents the Sunset District, which he said reports the most catalytic converter thefts. Still, he faced criticism from some people who said it won't solve the need for police to do more to crack down on the crime.
  • But the pilot program ultimately drew hundreds of residents, and Engardio has said he plans to expand it.

How it works: Catalytic converters are made up of precious metals such as rhodium, platinum and palladium, making them highly valuable.

  • With only tiny portions of these metals inside each converter, there is more value in stealing dozens at once, per Vox.

Yes, but: Tracking stolen converters has proven difficult. A New York Times investigation found that stolen catalytic converters "pass through middlemen, smelters and refineries in the United States and overseas."

  • The unknown origins of the stolen converters leave the beneficiaries of the thefts with "plausible deniability and little incentive to stop them," per the Times.
  • Plus, converters can be sawed off beneath a car in only minutes.

Be smart: If the catalytic converter on a car has been stolen, the vehicle will make a very loud noise once started. BeenVerified, a background check company that tracks criminal information, recommends installing a catalytic converter anti-theft device or motion alarm to better protect against these thefts.

  • Parking in a locked garage, well-lit area or any place with high pedestrian traffic can also help deter thefts, according to BeenVerified.

The big picture: Catalytic converter thefts skyrocketed across the U.S. during the pandemic.

  • While nationwide they are down so far in 2023 after a surge last year, they're still almost 21 times higher than in 2019, per an August report from BeenVerified.
  • The National Insurance Crime Bureau recorded 64,701 insurance claims for converter thefts last year, up significantly from 16,660 claims in 2020.
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