latest news Catalytic converter theft spree hits older Toyota Prius

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

Trinh had his wedge-shaped car repaired. But she heard the telltale growl again in January while in Sacramento. And again in February, in the parking lot of a Las Vegas casino. And again in March, at his home in Los Angeles.

“By the fourth time, I was numb,” said Trinh, who works for a hotel technology company and lives in Eagle Rock. “I had no more emotions. I was like, ‘Well, that’s how life is now. I guess my catalytic converter is going to get stolen every month.'”

Fifteen years ago, the Toyota Prius was so popular in California that buyers had to wait up to seven months to buy one. Now the aging hybrid is back in demand for an entirely different reason.

The second-generation Prius, sold from 2004 to 2009, became a prime target for catalytic converter thefts in California. The shoebox-sized pollution control device contains traces of precious metals and can fetch several hundred dollars for scrap yards and recyclers.

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

But in the West, according to the analysis, the Prius took the top spot.

Hybrid catalytic converters have a higher concentration of precious metals compared to cars that run on gas alone. The 2007 Prius converter has a resale value of over $1,000, while a 2007 F-150 converter fetches about $150. Newer Priuses are also targets for thieves, but they use a different converter that sells for less.

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

The frequency of partial theft reports — a category that includes theft of catalytic converters — rose nearly 850% in California from 2019 to 2021, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit organization funded by the industry. insurance. About a quarter of the nation’s insured Prius 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 outreach. She said some hybrid cars, including the Toyota RAV-4, also have similar gasoline-only models, and thieves usually can’t tell the difference until they’re under the car with a handsaw. .

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

Those who had planned to continue driving their reliable old cars are now faced with an unappealing calculus: spend more money on a new car, or keep the old one and risk a catalytic converter theft, which can cost more than 3 $000 to repair.

Some Prius owners are turning to guerrilla solutions: painting their catalytic converters bright orange or pink, etching the units with a vehicle identification number, and bolting on skid plates and roll cages.

Police departments in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Las Vegas didn’t find Trinh’s catalytic converter, she said — not that she expected. She eventually wrote to a YouTube prankster who targets scammers, asking him to ride a bait car that could scare off thieves. (He hasn’t yet.)

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

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 take place on street corners, residential driveways and secure parking lots. Many thefts happen overnight, but drivers have seen legs peeking out from under their cars and heard the roar of a portable saw by mid-afternoon.

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

Nichols chaired the Air Resources Board in the 1970s when the Golden State began requiring a new form of catalytic converter that eventually became the national standard.

Nichols did not drive the car; staff members did, according to Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young. But, he said, it’s ironic that the thieves targeted the vehicle attributed to “the very woman who did more than anyone to pioneer clean air technologies on cars.”

Prius drivers who engage in the costly and time-consuming task of replacing a catalytic converter say they are frustrated that little has been done to stem the problem. Police are not treating the problem as a priority, they said, and laws aimed at curbing trade in black-market devices have not helped.

“The Prius Owners Union needs to form and take Sacramento by storm,” 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 looked a bit like the Tesla in 2022, Graff-Weisner said: a popular car with a waiting list and the promise of carpool lane access. There’s a certain irony, he said, that “it’s now a hot commodity for a different reason.”

latest news Catalytic converter theft spree hits older Toyota Prius

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

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

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

Jao’s insurance company covered the cost of the repair, minus his $1,000 deductible. He also spent about $500 bolting a plate to the converter, which was not covered by insurance.

“I’m not the guy who pulls over to valet in a really flashy sports car,” said Jao, who works in concert promotion. “I deliberately drive a car that is a bit frumpy. It’s very strange to think, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m a target now.’

Catalytic converter theft can be lucrative for thieves, but it’s not without risk. A man trying to steal a converter from a Prius in Anaheim was crushed to death when the jack holding the car down 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 while confronting converter thieves in Long Beach and North Hollywood.

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

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

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

Kokes did not respond to questions about whether Toyota would consider a recall for the second-generation Prius, which some owners have lobbied for. But, he said, “the unfortunate situation is one we take very seriously.”

Police suggest parking Priuses and other vulnerable cars in a closed garage or in a well-lit area. In Southern California, where street parking can be a blood sport, it’s often impossible. Other security measures don’t always help either.

Darren Dela Cruz leans on the hood of his 2008 Prius, whose catalytic converter was stolen twice.

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

(Wesley Lapointe/Los Angeles Times)

Last fall, 38-year-old Darren Dela Cruz heard a loud sawing noise around 3 a.m. He learned hours later that thieves had stolen the converter from his golden 2008 Prius in Costa Mesa. He was parked next to a newer Prius, which the thieves did not touch.

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

“The camera doesn’t seem to be doing much,” Dela Cruz said. “I caught them, got a good video of what was going on, sent it over, and it didn’t help at all. It seems like it’s happening so much that the police don’t really prioritize to do much about it.

Both repairs cost Dela Cruz $1,375, including two deductible payments of $500 and the cost of bolting a shield to its converter. If his car is targeted a third time, he said, he will sell it, but he would rather not have to.

When Steven Simon, 40, had his converter stolen from his 2008 Prius over Christmas 2020, he paid $1,000 for his deductible and $500 to bolt on a shield and returned to street parking at Echo Park . Then, in March of this year, his whole car was stolen.

The Los Angeles Police Department found the Prius a month later with the shield torn 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 hidden in the console.

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

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