CARLSBAD — The Carlsbad City Council adopted an ordinance prohibiting the possession of catalytic converters without proof of ownership to help combat a wave of device thefts across the region.
Catalytic converters, a key part of both hybrid-electric and gas-powered vehicles’ exhaust systems, help reduce emissions by taking dangerous pollutants — carbon monoxide, nitrogen gas, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons — and using catalysts to “convert” them into safer gases, such as carbon dioxide.
Cpt. Christine Calderwood, of the Carlsbad Police Department, told the council during its Jan. 25 meeting the spike in thefts is due to the extremely valuable metals, most notably palladium, platinum and rhodium, contained within the exhaust-system apparatus.
In 2020, 393 catalytic converter thefts were reported in San Diego County, which rose the following year to more than 2,056 reported thefts — a 423% increase. Platinum, palladium and rhodium are members of the platinum-group metals and they share catalytic qualities resistant to tarnish and wear, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
“I think what’s happening and because of the pandemic, a lot of the precious metal factories were shut down and harder to get,” Calderwood said. “All these metals are becoming super expensive.”
After the parts are stolen, according to Calderwood, law enforcement believes the converters are later “fenced” in neighboring counties and then sold to people in other countries.
Thieves can fetch between $300 to $1,200 per converter depending on how many metals are in each one. Second-generation Toyota Prius models (2004-09) have become hot targets for criminals due to their higher concentration of precious metals. According to a Highway Loss Data Institute study, these slightly older Prius hybrids are “40 times more likely to be subject to theft claims than the average vehicle.”
Generally, the cost to replace a stolen converter runs at least $2,000 and upwards of $3,000, but insurance companies are not covering damages to the vehicle during commission of the theft, which can require additional repairs.
In December, Calderwood said Carlsbad Police partnered with A-1 Auto Care in Carlsbad Village to offer residents a free educational meeting, providing car owners with theft-prevention tips and a free engraving of the vehicle’s identification number, or VIN (catalytic converters do not come with a serial number or VIN engraving and must be performed separately after purchase)
Since thieves can remove the device in a matter of minutes or even less, Calderwood suggested vehicle owners install protective cages made of stainless steel cables or aluminum-plate shields surrounding the catalytic converter (CatClamp, Catstrap), park in a garage or well-lit area and install security cameras.
And for those wondering if their car’s catalytic converter has been stolen, it’s hard to miss. Once the device is removed from the vehicle, the sound can be “deafening,” according to Calderwood.
“That’s how people usually find out,” Calderwood said. “We’re trying to send a message to people who come to Carlsbad that do not have documentation in your possession, you’re going to be held liable.”