Catalytic converter theft spree is hitting old Toyota Priuses

Nam Trinh knew something was wrong one morning in October when she turned on her 2008 Toyota Prius and heard a throaty roar, like a plane taking off.

Trinh had her wedge car repaired. But she heard the telltale growl again in January when she was in Sacramento. And again in February in the parking garage of a casino in Las Vegas. And back home in Los Angeles in March.

“The fourth time I was numb,” said Trinh, who works for a hospitality tech company and lives in Eagle Rock. “I had no more emotions. I thought, ‘Well, that’s life now. I guess my catalytic converter gets stolen every month.’”

Fifteen years ago, the Toyota Prius was so popular in California that buyers faced waits of up to seven months to purchase one. Now the aging hybrid is in demand again for a completely different reason.

The second-generation Prius, sold from 2004 through 2009, has become a prime target for catalytic converter theft in California. The car’s shoebox-sized anti-pollution device contains trace amounts of precious metals and can fetch hundreds of dollars at junkyards and recyclers.

Converter thefts have increased sharply in the United States over the past two years. An analysis of repairs at 60,000 auto repair shops found that Ford F-150 trucks and Honda Accords were the top theft targets nationwide, while the Prius was 10th.

But in the West, according to the analysis, the Prius took first place.

Catalytic converters in hybrids have a higher concentration of precious metals compared to purely gas-powered cars. The 2007 Prius converter has a resale value of more than $1,000, while a converter in the 2007 F-150 fetches about $150. Newer Priuses are also targets for thieves, but they use a different converter that costs less.

Insurance companies have reported a tsunami of theft claims filed by owners of older Priuses in California, as well as Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and New Mexico.

According to the Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance industry-funded nonprofit, the rate of part theft reports — a category that includes catalytic converter theft — increased nearly 850% in California from 2019 to 2021. About a quarter of the nation’s insured Priuses sold between 2004 and 2009 are in California.

“As soon as you see one, you know it’s a Prius,” said Kay Wakeman, the institute’s director of insurance consulting. She said some hybrid cars, including the Toyota RAV-4, also have similar petrol models, and thieves usually can’t tell the difference until they get under the car with a handsaw.

The theft wave has left Prius owners feeling frustrated, vulnerable and broke.

Those who had planned to keep driving their old, reliable cars now face an unattractive bill: spend more money on a new car, or keep the old one and risk a catalytic converter theft that costs more than $3,000 to repair can cost.

Some Prius owners resort to guerrilla solutions: paint their catalytic converters bright orange or pink, etch the devices with a chassis number and bolt on fenders and cages.

Police departments in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Las Vegas haven’t found Trinh’s catalyst, she said — not that she expected. She ended up writing to a YouTube prankster who targets scammers, asking him to build a decoy car that could deter thieves. (He hasn’t yet.)

“I want some kind of justice,” Trinh said. “Even if it’s a glitter bomb.”

Steven Simon, posing in a pink t-shirt, leans on the hood of a gray Prius.

Echo Park resident Steven Simon had his catalytic converter stolen from his 2008 Prius in December 2020 and again in March this year. When it was found a month later, the interior was fully intact but no catalytic converter.

(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)

Thefts occur on street corners, in residential driveways and secured parking garages. Many thefts happen overnight, but motorists have seen legs sticking out from under their cars and heard the whine of a handsaw in the middle of the afternoon.

No Prius is immune. In 2019, thieves stole the catalytic converter from an older blue Prius parked in a garage in downtown Sacramento. The car was assigned to Mary Nichols, who was then California’s top air pollution agency.

Nichols was chairman of the Air Resources Board in the 1970’s when the Golden State began requiring a new form of catalyst that eventually became the national standard.

Nichols wasn’t driving the car; Employees did so, according to Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young. But, he said, it was ironic that thieves targeted the vehicle, which was “attributed to the woman who, more than anyone else, helped develop clean air technologies for cars.”

Prius drivers struggling through the costly, time-consuming duty of replacing a catalytic converter say they are frustrated that little has been done to contain the problem. Police aren’t treating the issue as a priority, they said, and legislation aimed at discouraging black market trade in the devices hasn’t helped.

“The Prius Owners’ Union needs to found and storm Sacramento,” said Prius owner Michael Graff-Weisner, half-jokingly. “We need our voices to be heard.”

Graff-Weisner’s gray 2006 Prius, which he parks on the street in West LA, has had its converter stolen three times since 2019.

The mid-2000s Prius feels a bit like the Tesla in 2022, Graff-Weisner said: a popular car with a wait list and a promise of carpooling access. It’s ironic, he said, that “it’s a very hot commodity now for a different reason.”

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A surveillance camera shows three men stealing the catalytic converter of a 2008 Prius parked on a residential street in Baldwin Hills on November 23.

Roger Jao’s converter was stolen on the street outside his Baldwin Hills home on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

His security camera caught the theft from his 2008 Prius, which lasted less than two minutes. Jao shared the footage with police, but they never responded, he said.

Jao’s insurance company paid for the repairs minus his $1,000 deductible. He also spent about $500 screwing a plate to the converter that wasn’t covered by insurance.

“I’m not the type to drive to the valet in a really flashy sports car,” said Jao, who works in concert promotion. “I intentionally drive a car that is kind of old-fashioned. It’s very weird to think, ‘Oh my god, I’m a target now.’”

Catalyst theft can be lucrative for thieves, but it is not without its risks. A man who tried to steal a converter from a Prius in Anaheim was crushed to death when the jack holding the car failed, police said.

Thefts can also be risky for car owners trying to prevent them. This year alone, at least two people have been shot dead while confronting converter thieves in Long Beach and North Hollywood.

Last month, police in the Portland, Ore., area said they busted a crime ring that had trafficked more than 44,000 stolen catalytic converters for over 18 months. The converters, which had an estimated street value of more than $22 million, had been stolen from six states, including California and New York, according to police.

The “industry-wide challenge” of catalytic converter theft was a topic of conversation when Toyota officials met with the Los Angeles County Dist. atty George Gascon
Company spokesman Nathan Kokes said in an email last fall.

Toyota supports “legislative solutions aimed at eliminating an easily accessible market for these stolen parts,” Kokes said. “If there is no market for these parts, there is no financial gain for thieves.”

Kokes didn’t respond to a question about whether Toyota will consider a recall for the second-generation Prius, which some owners have campaigned for. But, he said, “we take the unfortunate situation very seriously.”

Police suggest parking Priuse and other vulnerable cars in a locked garage or in a well-lit area. In Southern California, where street parking can be a blood sport, that’s often impossible. Other security measures do not always help either.

Darren Dela Cruz leans on the hood of his 2008 Prius, which had its catalytic converter stolen twice.

Costa Mesa resident Darren Dela Cruz had his catalytic converter stolen twice in less than a year from his 2008 Prius.

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

Last fall, Darren Dela Cruz, 38, heard a loud sawing noise around 3 a.m. He learned hours later that thieves had stolen the converter from his gold 2008 Prius in Costa Mesa. It was parked next to a newer Prius that the thieves didn’t touch.

Dela Cruz had his car repaired and installed motion-sensing security cameras in his driveway, which caught the second theft five months later.

“The camera doesn’t seem to be doing much,” Dela Cruz said. “I caught her, I have a good video of what was going on, I sent it in and it didn’t help at all. There seems to be so much going on that the police aren’t really prioritizing doing much about it.”

The two repairs set Dela Cruz back $1,375, including two $500 deductible payments and the cost of bolting a shield to his converter. If his car is targeted a third time, he’ll sell it, but he’d rather not.

When Steven Simon, 40, had his converter stolen from his 2008 Prius for Christmas 2020, he paid $1,000 for his excess and $500 to screw on a sign and parked back on the street in Echo Park. Then, in March of this year, his entire car was stolen.

Los Angeles police found the Prius a month later with the shield ripped off and the catalytic converter missing. Everything else, Simon said, “was in the exact state of chaos it was left in,” including a $20 bill that was inserted into the console.

Simon had the car repaired again, but now, he said, he worries the car is “like a sitting duck”.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-07/catalytic-converter-theft-toyota-prius-old Catalytic converter theft spree is hitting old Toyota Priuses

Alley Einstein

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