Catalytic converter theft has surged nationwide. LA's top prosecutor is threatening a fight with auto companies to force change.
LOS ANGELES — George Gascón knocks on his dark wood desk for good luck.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney has two hybrids in his home and knows it could only be a matter of time before he joins the estimated 30,000 people in Los Angeles County this year who have been victim to a crime rising in popularity: Stealing catalytic converters.
The converters, a crucial and costly car part that reduces engine noise and prevents harmful emissions, have become a prime target of thieves across the country since the pandemic started because of shortages of the rare metals they contain.
But Gascón has a plan that he believes could reverberate across the nation in stopping these thefts. He's working with several auto manufacturers in hopes of crafting solutions such as installing anti-theft devices and marking the converters, like other major car parts, so they can be tracked when resold – making it both easier for law enforcement to investigate and, potentially, cutting off the incentive if buyers are able to distinguish whether a part is stolen before purchasing.
Many are resold to scrap yards and recycling plants for several hundred dollars each. It’s a largely untraceable crime with a high financial reward that takes only a sharp saw and, in some cases, less than one minute to complete.
But Gascón, 67, has already been rebuffed by several manufacturers. And now, he is threatening a fight to force first-in-the-nation changes in a state that often sets policies that ripple across the country. Leading the largest prosecutorial office in the United States, Gascón said he has a successful playbook at the ready that forced major companies to institute changes in curbing cellphone thefts that he says might have to be used again.
“It doesn't really matter what part of the country you're living in. You will probably, if you haven't yet, you will know someone – if not you personally – who had their catalytic converter stolen. And I think it requires national solutions," Gascón told USA TODAY.
"A cornerstone of good capitalism is to have good corporate citizens," he said. "I'm hoping that our car manufacturers, especially the larger ones, don't have to be dragged into this. I'm hoping that they stop for a moment and say, 'You know, it makes sense. Let's look for a solution that works.'"
The thefts leave victims with extremely loud vehicles and repairs that can cost up to about $3,000 to fix, something often not covered by insurance. Experts say shortages of the part have also lengthened the time it takes to replace one in some areas. It's also illegal to drive a car without a catalytic converter in certain parts of the country.
Blame game hot potato? Manufacturers deflect responsibility
Over the summer, Gascón's office reached out to Honda, Toyota, General Motors and Ford – four of the largest auto manufacturers – about the rise in thefts and possible tactics they could collaborate on to stop them. Each was invited to meet.
Read the letters sent to automakers here.
Gascón's office says they received mixed replies with some manufacturers appearing to point the finger at other stakeholders for reasons why changes hadn’t yet been made.
Letters and e-mails to and from Gascón’s office showed several manufacturers appearing to rebuff offers to work with his office or sit down and discuss theft prevention tactics. In one letter, General Motors said deterrents such as markings on the converters – something Gascón's office said could help prevent thefts in future vehicle models – and anti-theft devices are “neither a solution nor do they address the root cause of the problem – criminal demand.”
The letter from Jason Klingensmith, an assistant general counsel for GM, called these potential deterrents “band-aids” that could increase costs to consumers. Instead, he told Gascon’s office to reach out to several auto trade associations that have been examining the issue.
“This is a complicated nationwide problem involving numerous stakeholders, including vehicle manufacturers, insurance companies, new and used car dealers, law enforcement and scrap/recycling businesses,” the letter states.
Gascón said responses such as that from GM send the message that “they really don’t care about the consumer" and want to shift blame and solutions to others. He said it “basically sends the message that we’ve made our money and this is someone else’s problem now" as customers have to absorb the burden and shell out thousands for repairs.
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GM refuted that characterization and said it is "calling for multiple stakeholders to be involved in a solution and believe this does not fall solely on the automaker," Jeannine Ginivan, a spokeswoman for GM, told USA TODAY exclusively when asked about the correspondence.
Letters and emails show Toyota spoke with Gascón's office but took a similar stance in both acknowledging the thefts were an issue and referring them to several auto trade groups. The company told USA TODAY it's focusing on legislative solutions.
"In our view, the most effective approach requires close collaboration between the broader automotive industry, law enforcement and local and state authorities to devise legislative solutions aimed at eliminating a readily accessible market for these stolen parts," said Aaron Fowles, a Toyota spokesman. "If there isn’t a market for these parts, it eliminates the financial gain for thieves."
Honda, though, has been open to discussing tactics and has been in discussions with their engineers, Gascón said. The company, in a statement to USA TODAY, said it's open to working with all stakeholders and examining a host of solutions to solve the issue.
Read the responses from automakers sent to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office about fighting catalytic converter theft.
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Catalytic converters and phones theft: A playbook for change?
Gascón isn't new to hurdles and roadblocks from major companies, he said, noting his work leading the charge in stopping a surge of cellphone thefts by helping craft a law that forced kill switches in phones. He said the switch in turn made phones, which were being sold overseas, into "a paperweight."
He saw the financial gain by some wireless carriers, he said, and the resistance "became nasty" and led to fighting. But ultimately, it led to legislation and a law tackling the problem.
"I think that when we're looking at catalytic converters, we're hoping that we don't have to get there, right. We're hoping that they see this is an issue that it's impacting communities everywhere," Gascón said, noting thefts, left unchecked, would allow criminal enterprises to thrive.
"Am I up for the fight? I am. Do I want to fight? No, because the fights are unnecessary and just to take a lot of time and effort from everybody," he said.
But Gascón wondered aloud that, "it does seem like a replay of the telecommunications industry with the phones," and that "if we have to take it to that level again, we will."
He reiterated that his office wasn't looking to dictate the specifics in how companies solve this issue but wanted everyone to come to the table to craft a solution with some urgency, noting the best minds are typically the manufacturers themselves.
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One of the auto groups Gascón's office was repeatedly referred to, the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI), said auto manufacturers likely aren't going to move on changes unless consumer outcry or legislation forces them. Joseph Boche, a director at IAATI who chairs the association's catalytic converter theft prevention subcommittee, said auto manufacturers are "certainly on board with trying to do something" but there doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency.
Boche noted efforts across the county by law enforcement to help etch vehicle VIN numbers on the devices and safety tips for preventing the thefts. But, he said investigations attempting to catch thieves are a hodgepodge effort that feels like a game of whack-a-mole.
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Boche said efforts examining markings on the converters and the places that purchase them were underway. But, he said scrap yards and recycling plants that often purchase stolen devices have been fairly resistant to strict requirements that would force sellers to supply a copy of a vehicle's title and registration or other proof to show where a converter came from.
"It's a powerful industry," Boche said. "I mean, they have a good lobby and they have a lot of money."
The IAATI outlined a number of potential solutions that could help cut off thefts, including changes that would make catalytic converters a "major" automotive component that would be required to have a VIN printed on them.
With markings on the converters, Boche said he's been told new vehicles likely wouldn't have them until 2024 if manufacturers decided to start the process now because of how advanced planning operates in new models.
What's behind the sharp increase in catalytic converter thefts?
Catalytic converter theft is an age-old crime. But the pandemic’s widespread impacts across the world slowed the production of the devices and led to some shortages of the precious metals inside them, including platinum, palladium or rhodium.
Rhodium, a chemical element that helps remove pollutants from a vehicle’s exhaust, skyrocketed in price because of slowed mining in South Africa. In 2018, a troy ounce of the substance was $1,715. In February 2021, the price soared to $27,400 per troy ounce.
The soaring prices also converged with a heightened focus for automakers and countries around the world in cutting emissions and pollutants, making the substance that much more valuable.
In turn, thefts across the country startled unknowing vehicle owners. Law enforcement across the country wrestled with the surge in crimes, which oftentimes are hard to solve because of a lack of identification on many of the devices.
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Thefts of the devices aren't specifically tracked and the crimes aren’t always reported since insurance doesn’t always cover such claims. But the National Insurance Crime Bureau says reported thefts increased from about 108 per month in 2018 to 1,203 per month in 2020. The agency said 2,347 thefts were reported last December.
Thieves haven’t discriminated, either. Police cars, school vehicles and everyday drivers have been targeted. Hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius, have been a favorite among criminals because the converters erode the precious metals inside slower, meaning the devices stay in good shape longer.
In Arizona: Tempe police in March arrested a man suspected of stealing over 100 catalytic converters. Investigators said he may have been stealing up to 20 each week. In September, the Mesa Police Department released information about an undercover investigation with one case that included 141 catalytic converters thefts from a car parts business worth over $40,000.
In New Jersey: Twelve catalytic converters were stolen from school buses in the Burlington County Special Services School District last month. Estimates from the district say it will cost $2,000 to $3,000 per bus to repair during a national busing shortage that has led to transportation delays across the country.
In California: A Habitat for Humanity truck was targeted last month. The organization wrote on Facebook that it understands “times have been difficult” with the pandemic but the theft “makes it more difficult for us to help our community." In June, a 12-year-old boy was shot and wounded in Oakland after his father tried to stop thieves from stealing a converter from the family’s vehicle.
In New York: A man was killed in September after a car fell onto him after he had jacked it up to steal a catalytic converter.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau said the top states with the most reported catalytic converter thefts were California, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Illinois. A host of states have been examining legislation to curb the thefts and some have passed laws, including Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Many of the new laws target the sale of stolen converters and aim to make them easier to track back to thieves and the vehicles they were stolen from.
Catalytic converter theft can happen anywhere, but thieves tend to target vehicles parked in driveways, on the street, or in poorly lit parking lots.
Experts say the best way to protect yourself is to park your vehicle in a secure garage or park in a well-lit and populated area. Experts also recommend buying an aftermarket device best described as a metal cage that can be installed to cover the catalytic converter, much like the Club device hooked into a steering wheel.
Contributing: Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY
Christal Hayes reports from Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter: @Journo_Christal