When Greg Mayeda started the engine of his 2010 Prius one September morning, the usually docile hum of the hybrid car struck a different tone than usual.
“It sounded like a Harley,” Mayeda said.
Thieves had ripped the catalytic converter out of his Prius. And it wasn’t the first time it had happened to him.
Back in 2019, Mayeda borrowed his brother’s car—also a Prius—to attend a Janet Jackson concert at San Francisco’s Chase Center. He took BART and parked near West Oakland Station, only to come back and find the car’s catalytic converter stolen.
Mayeda is hardly alone as a victim of catalytic converter theft in Oakland.
Data obtained by The Standard from Oakland Police Department through public records requests found catalytic converter theft increased 37% between 2020 and 2021, the only current full years that data has been collected for. If current trends continue, 2022 shows a slight decrease in converter thefts over 2021, but remains higher than 2020.
The police data, broken down monthly and by ZIP code, shows that ZIP code 94611, which includes Piedmont and the Montclair neighborhood in the Oakland Hills, has the most thefts since 2020.
ZIP code 94602 is the second worst area, which is also in the Oakland Hills and includes the Glenview neighborhood, followed by 94606, which is just east of Lake Merritt and includes the Highland Terrace neighborhood.
Jaime Barajas, a mechanic at All Mufflers Discounted, a muffler and exhaust shop in Oakland’s Fruitvale Neighborhood, has seen the effects of increased theft firsthand.
Barajas said he gets 25 calls daily asking about catalytic converter replacements—up from around five calls a day in early 2020—and replaces around two converters every day.
“It’s really bad out here in Oakland,” Barajas said.
Barajas noted that despite the large number of calls he gets, he does comparably fewer replacements due to the high cost of a replacement—which is between $900 and $1600, according to Barajas.
Even for those who can afford the work, ordering new catalytic converters for some models can take months.
Mayeda, who lives in Montclair and works as an attorney, said the Prius targeted by thieves in September has been parked at an Oakland Toyota dealership ever since. Mayeda said it will likely be there until January until a new converter arrives.
“If that one car was your only mode of transportation, you’d be screwed,” said Mayeda, who has access to other cars.
Given the trouble and expense, avoiding theft in the first place may seem ideal. OPD said in an email that some ways to deter thieves include:
Barajas warns, however, that protection does not always work.
While rebar cages and metal plates can be installed around the converter to stop thieves, he has recently seen thieves get creative, bending bars and plates out of the way to remove the part, often cutting off even more exhaust pipe that they would have otherwise.
Barajas has now stopped offering to install rebar cages and metal plates, as he believes that they are ineffective.
“They just cut around them,” Barajas said. “The work ends up getting more expensive.”
Barajas also does not recommend welding the converter to the car’s frame, as it can cause damage to the converter. The car’s frame twists as it drives around and the converter could twist with it, he said.
Having had catalytic converter thefts happen to him twice, Mayeda is hoping that it will not happen a third time, especially once his Prius is fitted with an expensive, brand-new converter.
“I’m worried about it happening again,” Mayeda said. “It’s just an inconvenience of living in Oakland.”
Catalytic converters are required for cars manufactured after 1975 to meet California automotive emissions requirements and to legally operate on public roads.
What makes catalytic converters so valuable are the precious metals inside them, namely platinum, palladium and rhodium, which act as catalysts to neutralize harmful emissions produced by car engines.
Rhodium in particular shot up in value during the pandemic, averaging more than $12,000 per troy ounce throughout November, more than seven times the value of gold during the same period, according to a Kitco, one of the world’s largest online precious metal dealers.
If your converter is stolen, OPD said to report the theft to police and your insurance provider.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org