Large heap at a scrap yard with catalytic converters

California Leads Nation in Catalytic Converter Thefts, Which Richmond Motorists Know All Too Well

Large heap at a scrap yard with catalytic converters
(Photo by Kathryn Sidenstricker / via Richmond Confidential)

By Wendy Medina, Richmond Confidential

Catalytic converter thefts have been rapidly climbing since 2019, with California leading the nation in thefts. And Richmond is no stranger to the surge, as auto repair shops cite a steady stream of vehicles that need catalytic converters.

To address the problem, legislators passed three laws this summer that would put trackable labels on converters, impose harsher criminal penalties for those selling or buying converters without documentation, and prioritizing vehicle parts thefts for the California Highway Patrol’s Regional Property Crimes Task Force.

“It’s a really big problem for Richmond,” police Lt. Matt Stonebraker said recently, before he was promoted to captain. He said night time is when most thieves strike because they can sneak under a car without being seen in the dark.

“They’re finding ways to do it quieter and quieter. Also, the market for catalytic converters is pretty widespread. You can sell them at a lot of different areas and make a lot of money; it’s lucrative,” Stonebraker added.

Richmond police say 305 catalytic converter thefts were reported through mid-October and that the thefts tend to drop with the temperature.

According to vehicle data company Carfax, catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed in the past four years, a remarkable 1,215% increase nationwide. The value of the precious metals that compose the car part may be one reason for the surge.

Precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium are needed for catalytic converters to transform a car’s harmful exhaust emissions into carbon dioxide and water vapor. Rhodium is the most precious of the three, garnering a peak price of nearly $30,000 per ounce in May 2021, and currently getting about $13,990 per ounce, more than eight times the price of gold. Typically, catalytic converters from cars have 2-6 grams of rhodium, while larger-engine SUVs and trucks contain 6-30 grams, according to Langley Recycling Inc.

Models more prone to the thefts are Toyota Priuses, Honda Accords and Honda CRVs, said Luis Estrada Jr., of Luis Auto Repair in Richmond, because they are easiest to detach from the exhaust system.

The CRV, because of its high clearance, is a popular target, Estrada said.

“People usually target a specific year, make and model,” he said. And repair costs range between $2,000 to about $3,500, as thieves also steal the oxygen sensors connected to the converters.

Stonebraker said thieves can remove the device in a matter of minutes. They drive around with a jack and the necessary tools to quickly detach the piece. And some of those thieves are armed.

On Oct. 4, 60-year-old Arturo Coronado was fatally shot shortly before dawn at his Oakland home while confronting thieves in the process of stealing catalytic converters. He had deterred thieves in the past from stealing tools on his property, his grieving daughter told  KTVU. However, he was unaware of the lengths thieves would go for the car part.

Stonebraker cautions the public not to take matters into their own hands.

“Call 911, and get the police out there as quick as possible,” he said.

If you can do so safely, Stonebraker suggested observing and recording what is happening to help police. Recordings and eyewitness accounts show that many of the Richmond culprits are teenagers.

To more safely secure catalytic converters, motorists can purchase cages or extra sensitive car alarms that go underneath vehicles. Additionally, police advise parking in well-lit areas.

Stonebraker does not believe the increase is due to the pandemic but more with the popularity of the crime. He said lots of money can be made from one day’s work.

This article was originally published Dec. 6, 2022, on Richmond Confidential. It has been reproduced with permission.

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