Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Thieves target catalytic converters

BY ERIC LINDBERG
DAILY SOUND STAFF WRITER

The criminals are quick, tough to trace and are choosing Santa Barbara of late as a preying ground for their crooked craft.
Victims usually don’t have a clue until they turn the ignition key and their vehicle rumbles to life with a roar more suited for a Harley or a tank.
When they bend down to look under the vehicle, sure enough, there’s typically a pile of bolts on the ground and an empty space where there should be a catalytic converter.

“We’ve been getting nailed,” said Sgt. Mike McGrew of the Santa Barbara Police Department.
In the past month, authorities have tallied at least 18 reported thefts of the crucial exhaust system part in the city of Santa Barbara alone.
While law enforcement agencies have been dealing with the scourge in larger cities such as Los Angeles for months, local police officials said catalytic converter thefts are just starting to hit the South Coast.
And the criminals have a target in mind.
“Most of them, if not all, are Toyota vehicles,” said Det. Sgt. William Marazita, who is heading the investigation into the string of local thefts. “And most of those are Toyota SUVs like the 4Runners or the Toyota pickups.”
The reason is simple — it’s much easier to slide under higher vehicles.
Some crooks are armed with electric screw guns or sprocket wrenches to pop off bolts. Others use electric saws to free the oblong device.
“Within four or five bolts, they can have it in their hand and be gone,” said John Hurley, the owner of John Hurley Automotive on Por la Mar Drive.
While some might sell off the parts to muffler shops or salvage yards, Det. Sgt. Marazita said many thieves are after catalytic converters for their platinum.
The precious metal is commonly used as the catalyst to help reduce noxious emissions before they leave the exhaust pipe. Palladium is another precious metal occasionally used.
Prices for both metals have skyrocketed in recent years, a factor that is providing a stronger motive for pilfering the device.
Platinum prices have averaged above $2,000 per troy ounce this month, according to Johnson Matthey, a specialty chemicals company and precious metals assayer. Two years ago, that price averaged around $1,200; five years ago, it topped out at $685.
A similar story unfolds with palladium, according to Johnson Matthey figures. Prices are averaging $456 per troy ounce these days, compared to $176 five years ago.
And while the criminals can reportedly get upwards of $100 for a catalytic converter, victims are taking a larger hit to replace the part.
“It’s costing our customers a lot of money,” Hurley said.
Prices for a new catalytic converter from an auto dealership can climb as high as $1,000, although several local mechanics said aftermarket parts could be found closer to $300.
Antonio Martinez, a mechanic at Discount Muffler Brake and Auto on Chapala Street, said he’s installed the part for as low as $165 in recent days and business is booming.
“In the last couple weeks, I’ve replaced 10 of those, all of them Toyotas,” he said.
Not replacing the critical device is not an option, authorities said, as it easily drops the exhaust system out of compliance with vehicle codes.
And as a link to the muffler, it is certainly noticeable when it’s gone.
“I don’t think it’s something you’d want to drive around without,” Det. Sgt. Marazita said.
A 26-year-old Santa Barbara man who asked that his name not appear in print said noise was his first clue something was wrong.
After spending the night at his girlfriend’s house near San Andres and Pedregosa streets last weekend, the victim headed outside and kicked on his ‘95 4Runner.
“It sounded like a lawnmower right inside the car,” he said.
A glance underneath the SUV revealed a common calling card of catalytic converter thieves — bolts on the ground.
“It’s just really petty,” the 26-year-old said.
He didn’t report the theft to police, explaining that his car insurance wouldn’t cover it and he doesn’t feel like hassling with paperwork.
After shopping around for replacement parts — and hearing a price range up to $1,000 — he isn’t too happy. “I almost just want to sell my car and get something else.”
With 18 reported thefts on the books this month, authorities are stepping up efforts to crack down. But it’s a difficult crime to tackle. The parts can’t be traced and the crooks are gone in minutes.
“We’ve got some leads that we’re following up on but we don’t have anything solid yet,” Det. Sgt. Marazita said.
He added that officers are working on several proactive measures, but declined to provide details.
Ron Beltran, the owner of Santa Barbara Iron and Metal Recyclers, said detectives paid him a visit recently to talk about stolen catalytic converters. He’s no stranger to law enforcement, having met with authorities concerning copper thefts, which are also on the rise.
But other than recycling a few catalytic converters from the cars he purchases, Beltran said his company doesn’t deal with the auto part on a frequent basis. They certainly don’t buy the device from members of the public.
“That’s not something that we’re really doing,” he said. “…Bringing in car parts off the street — that brings up flags right away.”
Hurley, the auto shop owner, said he hasn’t replaced any stolen catalytic converters but frequently hears about thefts from friends.
He offered up a common suggestion for vehicle owners, particularly those with Toyota SUVs or trucks — weld it on.
While some thieves simply cut the converter out with exhaust piping on either end, those using wrenches will have a tougher time.
“It would take them way too much time and make way too much noise,” Hurley said.
And at an estimated cost of $40 to $50 for a quick welding job, it might be a good investment.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Colby - thanks for the "how-to" photo on your front page of the guy pointing to exactly where to unscrew the bolts! That should help the cause. I just love responsible journalism.

Anonymous said...

Oops I meant Eric...

JOLYON said...

It would have been more professional of Lindberg to name the guy and his business in the picture.
For the record his name is Has and he owns A1 Auto & Repair on South Milpas.

Jolyon Curran
IV