With catalytic converter theft at an all-time high, many cities have been searching for new solutions to protect their residents.
At their March 15 meeting, the Milpitas City Council voted to put $200,000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding toward a catalytic converter program that would enhance public safety while also supporting small, local automotive businesses.
A catalytic converter is a device, found on the underside of the car, that reduces the amount of pollution a vehicle makes. The three precious metals found in catalytic converters make them a hot property, which is why theft of this exhaust system part has increased year after year. Platinum, palladium, and rhodium are expensive, and thieves can sell them to recyclers to the tune of $50-$250.
Last Fall, even before discussion of the catalytic converter program by Council, the Milpitas Police Department (MPD) began partnering with local car dealerships to offer free etchings on the highly-coveted part.
“We’ve held four events since we began our partnerships in October 2021, and a total of 93 catalytic converters were etched,” shared MPD Assistant Police Chief John Torrez.
Although the MPD understands that etching itself doesn’t prevent catalytic converter thefts, it does help to provide them with an “investigative lead” when they stop a person in a vehicle with a freshly cut catalytic converter.
If an officer finds an etched converter, they’re able to use the license plate to find the car’s registered owner and look into whether or not a theft occurred. This can result in an arrest and a return of the converter to its rightful owner.
“We hope that the etching may be a deterrent to those looking to steal them and to those shops and recyclers who buy them without asking questions,” said Torrez.
Recently, though, Councilmember Evelyn Chua, who was responsible for requesting that Council put funds toward a catalytic converter program, discovered that etching might not always be the best solution.
In an interview with The Beat, Chua spoke of how, early this year, she began visiting auto shops to ask questions and learn more about catalytic converters.
“My original idea for the program was to etch the license plate into the catalytic converter,” said Councilmember Chua. “But a couple of the auto shop owners said that even if we etch it, it takes just a few seconds to scratch it out.”
Last July, Vice Mayor Carmen Montano found that her RV’s catalytic converter had been sawed off — right outside of her Milpitas home. It took almost a whole year for her to get a new one. The cost for a new converter was high, and Montano’s insurance company was initially not willing to pay. Just last month, after much back and forth, the insurance company finally paid for a replacement. It took Vice Mayor Montano writing to a local senator to compel the insurance company to comply.
“I have friends that have also gotten their converters stolen as well, and they said that the converter actually costs more than the car itself,” said Montano to The Beat.
Bobby Nguyen, a Service Manager at Envision Honda of Milpitas, spoke to The Beat about how, recently, a customer had their catalytic converter stolen. They brought their car in, and Envision Honda was able to replace the converter. However, a couple weeks later, the customer’s converter was stolen yet again.
“We receive a lot of calls at the dealership about stolen catalytic converters,” said Nguyen. “The majority of parts are on backorder, and it’s very expensive to do repairs.”
Nguyen said that having a catalytic converter replaced with factory parts at Envision Honda can cost $5,000 – $6,000. For some customers who can’t afford the costs, he often suggests that they buy a California-approved “aftermarket” catalytic converter, which consists of replacement parts.
“You can go to a muffler shop to do it, and it usually costs between $650 – $800,” said Nguyen.
After spending time doing research and interviewing auto shop owners, Councilmember Chua discovered that the best way to protect a catalytic converter is by caging it. Just last month, she took her own 2007 Honda to ABW Auto Repair (65 Minnis Circle), so that they could cage its catalytic converter. It cost her a total of $445.57.
The idea is that by caging the converter with metal wiring, it will be harder – and take much longer – for thieves to get access to it. A caged converter offers too much of a hassle, making it more likely for thieves to give up on attempting to steal it.
Currently, the City of Milpitas is working out all the details for its catalytic converter program, and how best to start implementing it. Their intention is to make it available for all Milpitas residents to take part in. The City will also be doing some outreach to connect with low-income residents for whom the program might be of particular benefit.
As those details are being ironed out, Chua is looking for ways to get more funding on a federal, state, or county level. She has already begun the process of reaching out to various representatives.
“We really want to safeguard our residents,” Chua said.
A few things to be conscious of to protect your car’s catalytic converter: be mindful of where you park; get your converter etched; and, if you can afford it, make the extra effort to cage the converter.
The Beat will share more details when the City’s catalytic converter program is officially launched.