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Those legs under your car? Might be a converter thief

on October 9, 2008


Much to the dismay of his neighbors, David Williams didn’t hear the electric saw whining like a jet engine late one night outside his Rockridge home. He didn’t hear the commotion when a neighbor’s son came home at 2 a.m. that winter morning to find a pair of legs sticking out from under Williams’s car. He didn’t hear the getaway as that pair of legs scurried into a nearby car only to disappear down the street.

What he did hear, though, while out on the road in his Mazda MPV minivan the next day, was a sound he now likens to “the noisiest tractor you’ve heard.”

A look under the body of the minivan revealed the culprit: a big hunk of metal was hanging off the car’s underbelly.

It was Williams’s catalytic converter, a standard-issue device that uses trace amounts of precious metals to reduce vehicle emissions, and it was 90 percent sawn-off. Williams was the victim of an attempted catalytic converter theft.

Two months later, he became the victim of a completed catalytic converter theft.

“I just didn’t believe that they came back a second time,” says Williams. “The first time, I was really furious. I joked that I should set a rattrap under the car. I wish I had.”

Williams’s experience was not isolated, as catalytic converter thefts began to soar last winter with reports of similar incidents coming in from Washington, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio and Nebraska. Here in California, catalytic converter thefts are ongoing in metropolitan areas from Los Angeles to Sacramento, the devices now more prized than souped-up sound systems and custom rims.

The MO is consistent. According to California Highway Patrol officials, thefts take place under the cover of night, with thieves striking high-clearance vehicles like vans and SUVs. Toyota 4x4s like the 4Runner have been among the favorite targets because of their distance from the ground–nearly 10 inches–which makes it easy for thieves to crawl underneath and access the converter. Socket wrenches, ratchets and reciprocating saws, also called sawzalls, are the tools of choice for detaching the converters.

The rise in thefts last winter coincided with a booming precious metals market, particularly platinum, rhodium and palladium, the metals that line the converter’s insides and act as a catalyst to break down toxic emissions.

According to precious metals suppliers like Kitgo, platinum, the most commonly used catalyst, was selling at about $2,300 per Troy ounce, the unit of measure for precious metals, in March. With the average converter containing three to seven grams of platinum, a converter could have been sold for $222 to $518, a pretty paycheck for a job that can take as little as 90 seconds for an experienced thief with the right tools. At their loftiest, palladium and rhodium were priced at $560 and $9,746 an ounce, respectively.

While prices have since dropped, thefts have continued worldwide. From Cambridgeshire County, England to Little Ferry, New Jersey to Rockridge Boulevard in North Oakland, reports of catalytic converter thefts have continued to pop up regularly on community blogs and listserves, illustrating that despite a flagging market, the platinum-laced devices have not lost their appeal.

“They weren’t trying to break into the car,” one member posted on the Rockridge Neighbors community Web site after she caught two men going at her car with a reciprocating saw in the early morning hours of Sept. 19. The men drove off down Rockridge Boulevard before police were called and the resident was left with no evidence but a car that sounded like “an old boat.”

Within days, a flurry of posts followed on the Oakland10Y online discussion group, a forum for residents of North Oakland’s “10Y” police beat. “I had this happen to my Toyota truck about two months ago,” wrote one member. “I didn’t file a report because it seemed like more hassle than it was worth.”

“I just had my catalytic converter stolen from my Toyota truck,” wrote another. “They crawled under and cut it out.”

A third poster, the victim of an attempted theft over the summer, reported having a converter unbolted recently from a Toyota 4×4 that had been parked at 43rd and West. “The replacement is welded on,” the poster wrote.

Based on recent market values, the platinum in these stolen converters likely drew in less than $200.

In January, Bay Area police made 14 felony arrests after a sting operation led them to a San Leandro auto supply storeowner who allegedly purchased stolen catalytic converters. But by and large, arrests since then have been few and far between in the East Bay.

According to Oakland’s Public Information Officer Jeff Thomason, reports of catalytic converter thefts to his department are uncommon. He did not know the number of catalytic converter thefts reported to Oakland police in September when the posts appeared on Rockridge Neighbors and Oakland10Y, but did say no arrests were made.

But just because victims don’t report the thefts to the police–a number of online posts indicated that victims did not believe it was worth the trouble–doesn’t mean the thefts aren’t happening. According to Thomason, prevention is the best medicine in cases like this; he advises that residents remain alert to the goings-on in their neighborhoods.

“One way to help this is by setting up a neighborhood watch,” Thomason said. “Knowing your neighbors helps identify people and vehicles who should not be on your block.”

Other precautions include parking in a garage instead of on the street, welding the catalytic converter to the car, and installing the CatClamp, described by the manufacturer as a “massive impenetrable cage made from specially designed heavy duty aircraft wire rope” that is “nearly impossible to cut without industrial machines.” (The CatClamp is available online only for $270 at

Additionally, Mazda has developed a new type of catalytic converter that will reduce the amount of precious metal required to run the device. The high-tech converter will be unveiled at the Tokyo auto show later this month, but Mazda has not yet announced when it will be available in vehicles on the market.

But David Williams, who spent $35 on repairs after the attempted theft and $300 to replace the catalytic converter after it was effectively stolen, has adopted a “whatever will be, will be” attitude after getting hit twice by a crime that area police consider uncommon.

“What can you do to prevent it?” Williams asks rhetorically. “Not much, really.”×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg|×196.jpg

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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