Feeley ran out and opened a gate to find three men standing in her driveway like sentinels. They were scouting the street as they surrounded her Toyota Prius, and they had blocked the view of their activity from the street with their car.
Feeley, who works in the construction industry with men, isn't one to be easily intimidated, she said. But as she moved to confront the men, one took steps toward her and lifted his arm. She didn't see it, but she felt he might have had a gun.
"I went from fight to fright to flight," she said.
Running away and slamming the gate shut, in her haste she tripped over raised pavement and slammed to the ground, breaking her arm.
The men, meanwhile, remained unfazed by her interruption.
"They just continued to cut," she said.
By the time the police arrived, the men had disappeared.
Feeley's no stranger to this particular crime; it was the third time thieves went after her catalytic converter, she said.
This time, though, she didn't think they had really gotten through. She'd had heavy metal bars welded across the converter specifically to deter thieves.
In the morning light, however, she discovered they had cut around the metal cage and unbolted her catalytic converter.
"I was feeling pretty smug," she said about the massive metal strips and coils of metal the welder had added. But the protective device only served to slow down the thieves, not stop them.
The price tag to replace her catalytic converter? $3,000.
Feeley is one of hundreds of people in Palo Alto who have lost their catalytic converters to criminals in the past three years alone. The loss isn't limited to the city; it's a nationwide phenomenon that has cost millions of dollars in expensive repairs each year.
Thieves target the smog-control devices for the thin layer of precious metals that cover their honeycombed surfaces. It's a lucrative business that can net hundreds of dollars for each device, according to experts.
Now, California has passed laws aimed at curbing the crime trend by better regulating sales, labeling the equipment and increasing penalties. But on the ground, the stealing just keeps on happening.
Feeley is frustrated by the continual thefts. The first time she was a victim, 20 years ago, thieves targeted her Toyota 4X4 in Los Angeles; then two years ago, someone stole the catalytic converter from her Prius in Palo Alto. With this third theft, she's now sunk a total of $9,000 into replacing the valuable car part.
"Nothing about this situation has changed," she said.
She is not alone. All over Palo Alto, residents have reported the thefts of their catalytic converters, often more than once. It only takes a few minutes to cut them out and they are easy to transport.
Palo Alto police received reports of 223 catalytic converter thefts in 2020; 156 in 2021 and 99 thus far this year, acting Palo Alto Police Captain James Reifschneider said. In that same time frame, police have arrested only one individual for catalytic converter theft, he noted.
The effect on residents can range from hugely inconvenient to devastating.
Fairmeadow neighborhood resident Joyce Beattie had the converter stolen from her 2001 Toyota Prius twice in two years. The most recent theft occurred on Sept. 26.
A neighbor who heard the sawing called the police. Surveillance-camera footage in the apartment complex parking lot captured the crime, but the thieves escaped before officers arrived, she said.
Getting a new converter after the first theft in December 2020 took four months — a situation that many residents have said they experienced.
Beattie, a senior, was without her car the whole time. And because her car had been stored while waiting for the new converter, the car's smaller battery, which operates the windows and other accessories, died and also had to be replaced — another $300 on top of the $2,200 it cost for the replacement converter. The dealer wanted $3,400 but accepted less, she said.
This last time, she had a security cage added over the newly replaced converter.
The thefts, cost and haggling have been "a nightmare," she said.
"They have no idea how much pain they cause," she said of the thieves. "There's no way in the world they can get enough money for all the harm they do."
Larry Pezzolo said he has had his converter stolen three times from his Honda Element, most recently around five months ago.
"The first time it took months to get a catalytic converter because they had to crank up manufacturing" due to the number of stolen converters, he said. The car manufacturers usually have a schedule for the number of converters they manufacture relative to the number of cars produced.
Some residents said their insurance wouldn't cover the cost of a replacement converter, despite having theft protection, because of the car's age. Older Toyota and Honda models are often worth less than the converters. When North Palo Alto resident Linda Ballard's 2003 Honda Odyssey minivan had its converter stolen, her insurance company balked at the $4,500 it would cost to replace the converter. The company wanted to declare her car as a total loss and pay only for its book value: about $2,000.
Ballard opted to find a mechanic who could add an after-market catalytic converter that would be cheaper than the manufacturer's brand, she said.
Other residents noted that, even with insurance, out-of-pocket expenses can be high. For Joseph Haletky, whose 2003 Prius was targeted, out-of-pocket expenses amounted to $1,000 out of a $3,600 bill: $500 for the deductible and another $500 to have a catalytic converter shield installed.
Some residents have resorted to illegal ways to save money on getting their cars fixed, including going out of state to have after-market converters installed that don't meet California's strict smog regulations.
A resident of Evergreen Park said she purchased an after-market device that was legal at the time but then was banned by the state. To replace the catalytic converter with one that was now legal — and more expensive — she had to have a welded metal cage removed, the converter replaced and a new cage welded back on.
"It was insanely expensive," she said.
The next time thieves tried taking her truck's catalytic converter, they were deterred thanks to the cage, but instead they tried to take all of the chrome or metal they could from her car, causing hundreds of dollars in damage, she said.
An impactful crime
Chris Walker, owner of Bay Muffler in Mountain View, said he has been replacing about six catalytic converters a week. His shop does many converter replacements for low-income clients as well as wealthy customers.
"It's hurtful. They usually can't cover it," he said of the customers who are not affluent. "It's horrible for low-income people. You can't put a substitute converter on it. Retired people are walking away. They gotta eat."
Not all catalytic converters are the same. Some have more precious metals than others. The average price for a low-cost converter is $700 to $900, medium-priced is $2,500 and some are as high as $7,000, he said.
In addition, the value of the precious metals, particularly rhodium, has skyrocketed since late 2019, potentially driving the surge in theft. Rhodium is currently valued around $14,000 per troy ounce, about eight times the current price of gold.
Even in scrap materials, a super low emission vehicle (SLEV) Honda catalytic converter can fetch $500; a Prius catalytic converter can net $1,000, which can be quite lucrative for thieves.
With so many converters needing to be replaced, supply shortages have occurred, Walker said. A catalytic converter for the Prius Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) system has taken three to six months to be stocked; Honda SLEV parts have been in and out of availability, he said.
Magnussen Toyota and Anderson Honda dealerships in Palo Alto didn't return calls asking about the number of cars needing replacements and the lag time for getting a new converter.
Although most after-market smog parts might not be allowed in California, there are some alternatives. The state's Parts Locator Service through the Bureau of Automotive Repair Smog Check Referee Program (asktheref.org/) can help find parts when a car owner can't find one due to its rarity (asktheref.org/Services/Parts-Locator-Service). The state also has a Limited Parts Exemption. Vehicle owners must contact the Referee Call Center at 1-800-622-7733 for details, Walker noted.
The scope, and challenge, of stopping the crime
Catalytic converter theft has spiked across the country in recent years, from 1,298 reported thefts in 2018 to 52,206 in 2021, according to claims data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The bureau sampled member company claims data to identify catalytic converter theft trends, and a spokesperson wrote in a statement that the numbers don't represent all thefts.
California's share has been disproportionate — 37% of catalytic converter theft claims tracked by the bureau in 2021 were in the Golden State — even accounting for California's large population.
About 1,600 are stolen per month in California, per a 2021 presentation from the state's Bureau of Automotive Repair. Hondas and Toyotas, particularly older Priuses, are most often targeted, according to claims data provided by the AAA Automobile Club of Southern California. Hybrids have two converters and the parts tend to get less wear, making them more valuable, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Thieves can remove converters in minutes with an electric saw.
Reifschneider of the Palo Alto Police Department said that while the number of such thefts in town are trending down over the past three years, it is still a common crime in the city right now.
"These are challenging crimes for us to solve, as they often happen under the cover of darkness while residents are asleep, with little evidence left behind. While the saws used by the suspects to cut off the catalytic converter are not quiet, the act of removing the part can be done quickly by a skilled crew, meaning that we usually don't get any sort of call from a resident reporting an in-progress crime. Often, the first indicator that a victim has that something is awry occurs when they start their car the following morning and find that it is making a very loud and unusual noise," he said.
Officers and detectives follow up on these crimes as best they can, networking with their regional colleagues. But the stolen parts are quickly sold off — most often as scrap metal — and are difficult to trace back, in part due to not being serialized in a way that is traceable back to a specific vehicle.
"With any luck, new state law will significantly reduce the market for stolen catalytic converters, which in turn will hopefully significantly reduce the number of thefts and resulting inconvenience to victims," he said.
States take action
Lawmakers across the country have scrambled to halt the catalytic converter crime spree.
Amanda Essex of the National Conference of State Legislatures said remedies have mainly fallen into three categories:
? Regulating the sale of converters (for example, requiring more documentation).
? Increasing or creating new criminal penalties.
? Labeling the converters in some way so they can be traced back to owners.
States have passed at least 37 laws, according to Essex. But the laws are so recent there's little evidence yet which, if any, are effective.
California lawmakers also produced their own pile of 11 bills this most recent session. Many died early, but four wound their way through several layers of committees and votes. They are:
? AB 1653, which adds theft of vehicle parts to the list of crimes the California Highway Patrol's Regional Property Crimes Task Force should prioritize.
? SB 1087, which limits legal sellers of catalytic converters to people who can prove it came from their own vehicle, and to businesses including licensed auto dismantlers and repair dealers. Fines for breaking the law start at $1,000, and escalate for repeat violations.
? AB 1740, which requires people or businesses who buy catalytic converters to document the purchase by recording the year, make, model, and VIN number of the car that the converter came from.
? SB 986, which would require car dealers to etch a car's unique VIN number onto its catalytic converter if the converter is "readily accessible." It would also require a traceable method of payment for converters.
The first three bills were signed into law while the fourth failed to pass a late August vote in the Assembly. That bill was sponsored by the Los Angeles district attorney's office and was aimed at making it easier for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute catalytic converter theft.
Car dealers, who would have been tasked with etching numbers onto converters, opposed the bill. They didn't think it would deter theft, said Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Association, and they thought it could be expensive. For cars where the catalytic converter is easy to get to, it wouldn't take much time, he said. But for others — say, a car that has a converter attached to its engine block — the etching could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, Maas said.
Legislators amended the bill so that it didn't require VIN numbers if the converter wasn't "readily accessible" and marking it "would reasonably require the significant removal or disassembly of parts of the vehicle." But Maas said that standard wasn't sufficiently defined, and was worried the ambiguity would lead to lawsuits against dealerships.
"I can't tell you today what 'significant disassembly' means. I don't know which car that applies to," Maas said. "We're concerned that our dealers are going to be held responsible for not marking a catalytic converter that ultimately might have been stolen."
The bill's author, democratic state Senator Tom Umberg from Garden Grove, said he was "honestly shocked," in a statement after the bill's failure.
"I'm not surprised that the auto dealers and car manufacturers would be reluctant to take on this task to support their customers — we engaged in multiple conversations with them in the last seven months. Frankly, I'm more surprised that the majority of the California State Assembly chose the concerns of the car dealers over the cries of help from their constituents."
Tamar Tokat, a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, thinks the two laws regulating the sale of converters will be less effective without the VIN etching bill.
"We've already had record-keeping laws on the books for many years now and they've really been ineffective," she said.
Still, others see the new laws as a step in the right direction. They won't completely "wipe out" the issue, said Amanda Gualderama, a legislative advocate with AAA. But the bill limiting who can legally sell converters, SB 1087, closes loopholes in existing laws, she said.
Some people are looking to Congress to mandate that VIN numbers be etched onto converters. Under federal law, cars are already required to label several other parts, including the engine. A bill in congress would add catalytic converters to the list and create a grant program to help pay for marking existing vehicles.
"I kind of think it's appalling that the manufacturers don't just voluntarily put the VINs on the catalytic converters because they know they're a huge target," said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, a consumer advocacy nonprofit.
What's a car owner to do?
Some local police departments aren't waiting for the state or federal government to take action. The San Jose and Los Altos police have launched "Etch and Protect" programs that allow car owners to have their vehicle license plate numbers etched for free onto the converters, which makes it more difficult for thieves to sell converters.
In San Jose, the program was established in memory of San Jose resident The Nguyen, who was shot and killed on March 5, 2021, when he confronted two people who were tampering with his car.
Two car repair shops are participating in the Los Altos program: Allied Auto Works in Los Altos and Magnussen Toyota of Palo Alto. Brian Aberg, owner of Allied Auto Works, said he has received a couple of requests to etch catalytic converters a week.
He isn't convinced that etching the devices will stop crime, but it does provide protection for the car.
Police are trying to get the word out that recyclers will get busted if they are in possession of a converter that can be traced and determined to be stolen.
The catalytic converter shield or cage may offer some deterrent in that thieves will move on to the next car, Aberg said, but criminals often use a saw, so cutting the cage is just an extra step. And cages aren't cheap -- people say they spend about $300 to $400 to have them installed, he said.
There are other steps motorists can take to reduce the odds their converter gets stolen, according to the Bureau of Automotive Repair. Parking on a well-lit street — or in a garage if they have one — helps.
One can also adjust the car's alarm, to make it more likely to go off if someone tries to get under the vehicle.
But not everyone can park on a well-lit street or in a garage, and gadgets don't guarantee complete protection, as residents such as Feeley can attest to.
One Palo Altan who came up with a solution that won't cost him anything in the future and in fact made him some money is Haletky: He sold his Prius and has been getting along fine using public transportation, he said.
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