During one of the few sunny, dry days the Tri-Valley saw in early March, dozens of cars lined up just outside the auto shop at Las Positas College in hopes of having their vehicles' catalytic converters engraved.
The Livermore Police Department (LPD) and the college's Automotive Technology Program teamed up to host their second "Etch and Catch," a free, first come-first served community event that aims to deter catalytic converter theft by etching a vehicle's license plate number and spray-painting the police department's logo onto the part.
A catalytic converter's intended purpose is to convert the hazardous exhaust from a vehicle's engine into less harmful gasses. The recent rise in the thefts of these devices is largely attributed to the precious metals contained inside of them such as rhodium, platinum or palladium.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), the value of these metals has skyrocketed with rhodium averaging $10,700, palladium at $1,568 and platinum at $1,010 per troy ounce, making catalytic converters even more desirable to thieves who typically receive $50 to $250 per catalytic converter they turn in to recycling facilities.
"I think the biggest thing to highlight is that this is not just Tri-Valley-related, it's not just Livermore-related, this is actually a global epidemic and it's difficult to combat on a lot of different levels and it's hard to provide statistics on it but it definitely affects everywhere and we're trying to do what we can to make our impact on it," said LPD Officer Taylor Burruss at the March 2 etching event.
Burruss' assertion that the rise in catalytic converter theft extends beyond the Tri-Valley and even the Bay Area resonated with me as I recalled the ear-splitting sound -- almost like running metal through a blender, but worse -- that came from a rental car my family was using during a weekend getaway in Southern California in December of 2021.
The car had been targeted by catalytic converter thieves overnight while parked just outside our hotel. Unbeknownst to us, we happened to be parked in the one stall that was blocked from the view of security cameras thanks to a large tree on the property, according to hotel staff.
As residents of the Bay Area at the time, we were familiar with the increase in these crimes at home but were not aware the uptick was widespread and that we'd be at risk while on vacation.
Livermore resident Greg Healy's catalytic converter was also stolen while in another part of the state. In an interview during the "Etch and Catch" event, Healy said his Ford pickup truck was parked in a friend's driveway in Carmichael -- a suburb of Sacramento County -- when it was targeted back in January.
He said his friend was on his way out to the post office in the truck when he heard that distinct sound upon starting the ignition and knew right away what had happened.
"I went and took a look underneath it and said 'Yup, this took like a minute,'" Healy said. "Two quick cuts with a Sawzall and it was gone."
Sawzall is a popular brand of a power-driven reciprocating saw that is typically used for construction or household projects but has been identified as one of the most commonly used tools for catalytic converter theft along with pipe wrenches.
While the process of stealing the device may be quick and cheap, replacing it is anything but. Car owners could spend thousands to repair their vehicle after a catalytic converter is stolen. Healy said he paid $1,200 to replace his and then spent another $200 to have steel rods installed around it to make it more difficult to access.
"I don't want it to happen again, so I'm doing everything I can to keep it," Healy said, noting that getting it etched at the LPD event was another layer of protection to deter any future thieves. "I want them to look under there and say, 'nope' and move on," he said.
According to the NICB, California ranks as the No. 1 state for catalytic converter theft, followed by Texas, Washington, North Carolina and Minnesota to round out the top five. The agency sampled member company claims data to identify catalytic converter theft trends; however, officials noted that their analysis is not a complete reporting of all thefts and many go unreported altogether.
Based on the NICB's data, California reported the most catalytic converter thefts in 2021, accounting for 37% of all catalytic converter thefts throughout the country.
Pickup trucks like Healy's and SUVs like our rental car tend to be frequent targets for catalytic converter theft because their higher clearance from the ground makes them easier to access as well as delivery vehicles, according to the NICB. Hybrids are also a major target as they contain two catalytic converters and as a hybrid, the converters tend to see less corrosion than those of other vehicles with equal miles.
Brian Hagopian, the Automotive Technology Program coordinator at Las Positas, said he encourages "every Prius on the road and every Honda Accord on the road" to be vigilant about protecting their cars from catalytic converter theft. Hagopian's students etched more than 170 vehicles of all types during their collaborative event with LPD.
In addition to taking mere minutes to complete, catalytic converter theft is also difficult for law enforcement to investigate. "It's not what you know, it's what you can prove," said Officer Ryan Tujague of the Pleasanton Police Department. He noted that patrol officers may stop a vehicle and see multiple catalytic converters inside of it and maybe even a Sawzall but it's not illegal to possess any of those items. "We have to catch them in the process of doing it in order to say, 'No, you stole this,'" he said.
Tujague said what Pleasanton patrol units will often do during a situation that they suspect might be catalytic converter theft is ask the person in possession of the parts where they came from and why they have them and if they can't provide a viable reason at the time, the officers will collect the parts for safekeeping and require the person to show proof that the parts belong to them to retrieve them.
From March of 2022 to this March, Pleasanton has had about 224 thefts of catalytic converters, up from 167 for the same time frame the year prior. Tujague said he believes the uptick is partially attributed to the coronavirus pandemic and the increase of people working from home in recent years. "Vehicles were sitting for some people -- and still for some people -- for weeks on end and so it's just readily available for criminals to come and just take the catalytic converter," he said.
While catalytic converter thefts usually occur at night, thieves have become more brazen, committing these crimes in broad daylight.
Pleasanton PD has not yet hosted an event like "Etch and Catch" in Livermore but Tujague said that they are working on organizing one of their own in the near future. He said these types of events make the catalytic converters more identifiable which in turn helps make it easier for law enforcement to recognize when they have been stolen.
"If we end up making a car stop on patrol and they see the license plate on a catalytic converter with Livermore PD's spray-painted badge on it -- or another agency how they do it -- then we can follow up and investigate and that's how we ultimately catch these thieves," Tujague said.
LPD and PPD previously had a task force dedicated to investigating catalytic converter theft, which led to the takedown of a catalytic converter theft ring with the arrests of 30 suspects, the recovery of 50 catalytic converters and the seizure of $91,000 in cash. Although the task force has since disbanded due to staffing and resource shortages, the agencies still continue to collaborate with each other as well as other departments serving the Tri-Valley.
Sergeant Mark Holland of the San Ramon Police Department echoed Tujague's sentiments about the difficulty of investigating catalytic converter thefts. He noted that while their department has focused its energy on detection, enforcement, investigation and prosecution, there could be a possibility of arranging an etching type of event if there is real interest from the community.
Holland also highlighted specific ways in which Tri-Valley agencies work collectively to pursue these particular thefts and other crimes on a regional level.
"Law enforcement agencies work together through various systems to share information about recent cases, suspect vehicles and the identity of suspects. Every morning we exchange activity logs with Police Departments in the Tri-Valley," Holland said. "We are also part of an elaborate state-wide information sharing database, which generates crime flyers and broadcasts them to agencies state-wide. Many agencies have also installed and upgraded camera systems in their communities to better monitor and detect stolen vehicles and suspect vehicles as they enter the city," he added.
On an even wider regional level, officials from the Alameda County Sheriff's office said that their Crime Reduction Unit is in the process of working with local businesses to develop a program that would hopefully provide free etching on catalytic converters for identification purposes.
"Additionally, they have been in communication with a local insurance agent who has seen claims skyrocket because of this issue. Law enforcement and insurance agents alike are working to curb this issue, which has become a pain point for victims," ACSO officials said in an email.
In 2021, Alameda County saw 413 catalytic converter theft reports and 524 in 2022 -- an increase of 26%.
Amid the nationwide rise of catalytic converter theft, several pieces of legislation have been introduced in California and other states to address the issue.
Two California bills aimed at cracking down on catalytic converter theft that went into effect at the start of this year are AB 1740 and SB 1087, which both affect how used catalytic converters can be sold.
AB 1740 requires catalytic converter recyclers to include additional information in the written record such as year, make and model of the vehicle from which the catalytic converter was removed along with a copy of the title of the vehicle from which the device was removed.
SB 1087 prohibits people from buying a used catalytic converter from anyone other than certain specified sellers, including an automobile dismantler, an automotive repair dealer, or someone with documentation proving they are the lawful owner of the part.
This year, the NICB said it anticipates "at least 11 states to introduce new legislation to either establish new regulations on scrap yards, strengthen current regulations, increase penalties, and/or address problems identified with recently enacted laws."
Those 11 states include Idaho, Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.
"At the federal level, Congressman Jim Baird (R-Indiana) introduced the 'Preventing Auto Recycling Theft Act.' The Act is intended to reduce catalytic converter thefts by marking identifying information on catalytic converters, addressing how the parts are purchased, and strengthening enforceability of catalytic converter theft for local law enforcement," NICB officials said, noting that the agency worked closely with Baird to develop the legislation.
While local law enforcement officials say it's still early to gauge whether the California bills have made a significant impact in the amount of catalytic converter thefts occurring, there is a sense of optimism that these efforts along with their own individual department strategies and changes being made at the manufacturer level will together help deter and decrease these crimes.
LPD is planning another etching event in May and there may be additional opportunities throughout the year as well as in other communities. However, in addition to participating in these deterrence measures, officials advise vehicle owners to park in garages and well-lit areas when possible, keep home and vehicle security systems armed and consider investing in a catalytic converter anti-theft device.
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