Tonya Higby’s husband, Doug, knew exactly what to look for July 29. That morning, a neighbor stopped him as he prepared to leave for work to tell him he’d seen someone suspicious about 4 a.m. near his Ford sport utility vehicle.
“(My husband) looked underneath,” the Livermore resident said. “It must have been his first thought, knowing that was going on around here. He knew without starting the car.”
Tonya Higby said she didn’t think anyone would want something from her older Excursion, but she discovered she was wrong. The Higbys joined a growing number of victims nationwide who have fallen prey to catalytic converter thieves looking to make a fast buck.
“I’ve been told there are precious metals in there, and they are very valuable,” Higby said. “It sucks that somebody can take something like that so quickly off my car, and I'm stuck with a $1,300 bill to replace it.”
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), an industry association dedicated to preventing insurance-related crime, thieves are stealing catalytic converters from vehicles at alarming rates. The thefts, which often are insured under full coverage, require a major repair that can cost victims thousands of dollars.
Nationally, an average of 1,298 crimes were reported a month in 2018, NICB said. The figure rose to 3,389 a month in 2019 and to 14,433 a month in 2020. Nearly 2,350 — or 16% — occurred in December alone. California leads the nation.
State Farm insurance reported in July that during the 12-month period from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, catalytic converter theft among its customers grew nearly 293% nationwide. Compared to the year prior, catalytic converter thefts reached more than 18,000, up from just over 4,500. State Farm said it paid out more than $33.7 million in claims to its customers during that period.
Although large cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Sacramento lead the way, victims are anyone with a gasoline or diesel-powered vehicle.
“If you look at small town news blotters and newspapers you will see this unfortunately,” said Brady Mills, director of law enforcement outreach for the Washington D.C.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. ”There’s a lot of money in it.”
Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore have each seen increases this year.
In Pleasanton, victims reported 70 catalytic converter thefts from January to July, up from 35 in the same period in 2020. Pleasanton Police Lt. Erik Silacci called that a “notable increase.”
“We know the numbers are up,” Silacci said. “We’ve been talking about it.”
Dublin Police Capt. Nate Schmidt said his community has experienced 21 reported catalytic converter thefts from Jan. 1, 2021, to July 26, 2021. Although Schmidt did not have numbers from last year to compare, he said believes the crime is up.
“This crime seems to go in waves,” Schmidt said. “We had a spike around the 2007 to 2010 years, but only recently have I noticed this crime increasing a bit.”
Livermore police experienced a 75% increase in thefts from June 14 to Aug. 12 — or 77 vehicles. Of those, 28 occurred during the first 30 days, and 49 in the second, Livermore police Officer Arturo Rosas said.
“The people who do this crime are roaming the Bay Area and taking advantage of whatever opportunity they get,” Rosas said.
Thieves who target catalytic converters are looking for an easy crime and a quick buck, police said. Catalytic converters are devices that utilize the precious metals rhodium, palladium and platinum to convert hazardous exhaust into less harmful fumes. The prices of those metals drive the market.
The website tradingeconomics.com reported that on Aug. 12, rhodium, a silver-white metallic element that is resistant to corrosion and is considered the rarest and most valuable precious metal in the world, was selling at $19,000 an ounce. Although still higher than most of last year, the price was down from a peak of $29,800 in January.
The site said the price should continue to rise because of the auto industry's demand to meet increasingly tough emissions standards around the world. A lack of investment in mines during recent decades also has driven up the price.
According to the website, platinum was selling at $1,021 an ounce, and palladium for $2,624 an ounce.
Typically, unscrupulous recyclers will pay $50 to $250 to a thief for a catalytic converter to get to the pricy metals, NICB said.
Unlike in the past when Toyota sport utility vehicles seemed to be the prime target because they proved to be easy victims, thieves now will go after any vehicles.
In Livermore, the top three vehicles targeted were Honda Accords, Ford trucks and sport utility vehicles, and Toyota Priuses, Rosas said. Hybrids, experts said, contain more precious metals in their catalytic converters than some other vehicles.
Thieves move quickly, sliding under cars and trucks, sawing the pipes and making off with devices in minutes, Mills said.
Car manufacturers haven’t done much to make them more difficult to steal, but some cage-like devices and security locks are available on the market to protect catalytic converters from theft, Mills said.
Some police agencies in the past have held free events to engrave identifying information on residents’ catalytic converters, so that if any are recovered during arrests, detectives can quickly link them to reported crimes. Otherwise, police cannot determine where the thieves obtained them. Nothing is currently planned in the Tri-Valley.
Schmidt said Dublin police work with surrounding agencies and the Alameda County Regional Auto Theft Task Force to share information, such as suspect vehicles in the hope of identifying groups carrying out the crimes.
“The main defense against these crimes is the community’s ability to recognize suspicious behavior and contact police,” Schmidt said. “Most neighborhoods know what vehicles and people reside in their community, and if something looks out of place, we need them to contact police.”
Rosas said Livermore officers are trained to look for saws and tools inside cars pulled over for traffic stops to curb the problem.
Through February, 18 states were evaluating legislative ways to stem the theft problem, the NICB said. In 2009, California enacted a law that requires business owners who process individual vehicle parts to keep records of each sale or purchase of a catalytic converter, including the seller’s name and driver’s license number.
To avoid becoming a victim, police suggest parking in a garage or secured parking area, installing a motion sensor light near your car, or installing an anti-theft device. Thieves aren’t likely to take the extra time they would need and would move on to another vehicle.
Higby, who uses her sport utility vehicle to transport her three foster children to doctors and other appointments, said she and her husband are considering installing protection so they are not victimized again.
“This is a big hunk of money. I can’t keep turning around and doing that if somebody decides to do that again,” she said. “I really wish that they could think about the impact that they have on a family by doing something like that.”