Catalytic converter theft overtakes Marin County

Henry Pratt

More stories from Henry Pratt

Chloe Levenson

More stories from Chloe Levenson

Corina Karr

More stories from Corina Karr

Courtesy of Tara Costa

Catalytic converter thefts are on the rise in Marin County, leaving residents waking up to environmentally unsafe cars. Used to trap dangerous chemicals and pollutants a car produces, catalytic converters are located in the underside of most gas and electric-powered cars. Catalytic converters are constructed out of precious metals such as platinum, rhodium, and palladium, making them lucrative targets for potential theft.

AWHS science teacher Sue Fox’s catalytic converter was stolen back in Nov. of 2021 from the parking lot of her Fairfax condominium complex. She filed a police report with the Fairfax Police Department that same day.

“I came out to go to work, and all of a sudden I started to back up…and [the car] made a horrible noise,”  Fox said.

According to Fox, the pure metals that make up catalytic converters are highly sought after (30 grams of rhodium can fetch a price up to $20,000). In addition to their monetary value, metals such as rhodium, platinum, and palladium are nonreactive, meaning that their chemical bonds will remain stable during high temperature reactions, making them ideal components for car parts. These metals have catalytic properties as well, meaning they reduce the amount of time it takes for a reaction to occur, while also increasing the reaction’s efficiency.

Now, Fox says she will be more conscientious as to where she parks her car. When Fox discovered that her catalytic converter had been stolen, there were other cars obstructing her view of her car, allowing the thieves an easier chance to steal the converter. Fox would also like to protect her catalytic converter by installing a cage on the underside of her car, but she faces installation difficulties due to negotiating problems with her insurance company. 

“I’m parking in more visible spots…a lot of people I know put in the 400 dollar cage to protect [the catalytic converter], but my insurance company wasn’t about to financially support the cage, and said they would just keep paying to replace it,” Fox said.

I get follow-up requests weekly…on average a week [theft] happens multiple times a night throughout the county,”

— Kristian Gallegos

Despite potential measures to protect catalytic converters, Detective Kristian Gallegos from the Marin County Sheriff’s Department believes that catalytic converter theft cannot be contained. As a member of the Marin County Auto Theft Task Force, Gallegos oversees case records and the investigation of catalytic converter theft. 

“[Investigations] can be anything from…writing search warrants, or conducting surveillance on people that are suspects in catalytic converter thefts, and then really just taking the investigation as far as it can,” Gallegos said.

Similar to cases in East Texas and Nebraska, Gallegos believes catalytic converter theft in Marin County is “rampant,” regardless of location within Marin.

“I get follow-up requests weekly…on average a week [theft] happens multiple times a night throughout the county,” Gallegos said.

According to Gallegos, once catalytic converters are stolen, they are usually transported to metal recycling facilities and labeled as “junk.” Once the converters are mislabeled and can no longer be traced, the pure metals within the converter are melted down to their original form. This metal can then be sold off to potential buyers, and the thieves receive payment for their metal supply.

Daren Furgoson, Fixed Operations Director at BMW of Austin, Texas, says that catalytic converters are universally expensive, although prices can vary given the make and brand of a car.

“1,500 dollars is the average cost of one catalytic converter, some cars are equipped with two catalytic converters. Exotic cars such as Ferrari tend to be the most expensive, some cost over 6,000 dollars,” Furgoson said. 

Some catalytic converters, depending on the brand of car, are easier to access in cases of theft.  According to Way.com, the catalytic convertors in Priuses, Tacomas, Lexus SUVs, and Honda Accords are fairly easy to access.

Many Marin County residents own these cars, inciting anxiety that their cars might be targets for catalytic converter theft. On Nov. 23, Marin County resident Tara Costa said she saw two men sawing the catalytic converter out of her neighbor’s Honda Civic on the Alameda in San Anselmo. As Costa ran outside, the men jumped into their car and drove off. Costa caught the entire interaction on her front door camera. 

“Our street happens to have a lot of construction going on right now, one of our neighbors was having their driveway jack-hammered. The sawing tool that [the catalytic-converter thieves] used had a familiar noise because it was the same exact one being used for the driveway,” Costa said. 

The sound was typical, but Costa said it began at 6:55 am, different from when construction usually began. Suspicious, Costa left her house to inspect the noise. 

“The way the cars were pointed nose to nose, I thought they were trying to jump the cars. I was actually going outside to offer help, but then I realized it wasn’t that, and they were trying to steal her stuff,” Costa said.

Although the converter wasn’t stolen, Costa’s house is only about fifteen houses away from Brookside Elementary School, heightening the anxiety of Costa and other local parents. The Central Marin Police Department officer that responded to this police report stated that there was a quick response from law enforcement due to multiple catalytic converter thefts that day.

A catalytic converter, recently subject to being stolen, on the underside of a car, used to regulate harmful emissions. (Courtesy of CARiD)

“If it hadn’t been Thanksgiving break, kids would have walked by [the attempted theft]. I always see kids riding their bikes to school around 7 am. They were going like 50 mph and blowing stop signs to get away, it was really dangerous,” Costa said.

Not far from Costa on The Alameda, another car’s catalytic converter was successfully stolen a month earlier. The Delarocas’ 2010 Toyota Prius catalytic converter was taken at the end of October during the nighttime. Left with a nearly totaled vehicle, they had to rent a car while it took three weeks for the catalytic converter to be reinstalled, this time with a protective cage around it. 

“We’re almost expecting [the catalytic converter theft] to happen again, we’re at the point where if it happens again we’re just going to give up and get another car,” Mary De La Roca said.

Unlike Costa’s experience, De La Roca felt that law enforcement from the Central Marin Police Department was not productive with her case, creating a sense of helplessness.

“I filed a police report the next day and never heard anything from the police, they didn’t even bother to call me…I don’t think Marin’s taking it very seriously. I heard the [police], they’re not gonna prosecute [the thieves],” De La Roca said. 

Even though it’s been over a month, the lasting effects of the theft remain haunting  for De La Roca.

“You’re stressed, you’re thinking that these people outside your house are doing these illegal activities and you’re wondering if a robbery is gonna be next. Some of those people have guns. It feels very much like a violation…,” De La Roca said. “And [the theft is] not just about the money… it’s the fact that the people who do this are so greedy and they don’t think about the impact on people’s lives.” 

As an effect of  catalytic converter theft, Marin law enforcement seeks to hold thieves accountable, while residents attempt to keep their catalytic converters safe.A catalytic converter, recently subject to being stolen, on the underside of a car, used to regulate harmful emissions. (Courtesy of CARiD)