Nieko Adan was about to take a trip to San Diego when he heard the news from his neighbors—in the early hours of the morning, thieves had ripped the catalytic converter out of his Prius, and the converter from his brother’s Prius, too.
“We live in a quiet neighborhood; we didn’t think this would happen,” said Adan, who lives with his brother Julian and other family in a Santa Clara cul-de-sac near San Jose Mineta International Airport.
So instead of driving off to his partner’s law school prom at UC San Diego, Adan had to book a $300 last-minute flight to San Diego, on top of the $3,000 he would need to cough up for a new catalytic converter. The Prius itself is only worth about $3,600, Adan said.
Santa Clara police confirmed reports that Adan’s converter was stolen on his street at around between 1 a.m. and 2:20 a.m. on March 30, reporting two Priuses on the same block had their catalytic converters stolen at roughly the same time.
Adan said he and his brother were aware of the risk of catalytic converter theft when they bought their Priuses, so they took the extra step to install shields over their converters, but that didn’t stop the thieves.
Video taken from a neighbor’s doorbell camera shows four people working to steal Adan’s catalytic converter: one person to jack up the car, one to cut the converter off, one to stand watch and a getaway driver. Adan said the thieves loudly revved their engine of the getaway car before peeling out, seemingly to celebrate the theft.
“It was kind of a hard watch for me,” Adan said.
Santa Clara, a San Jose suburb of 127,151, saw a dramatic spike in catalytic converter thefts in just two years, from four reported thefts in 2018 to 188 in 2020. Total thefts between 2020 and 2021 jumped again by nearly 73% to 258. Thefts climbed further in 2022 to 297 reported thefts.
As of March 2023, there have been 70 thefts, compared with 59 by March 2022.
Theft data from 2015 to 2023 shows that catalytic converter thefts appear to happen throughout Santa Clara.
There are many thefts grouped within neighborhoods sandwiched between El Camino Real and Benton Street east of San Tomas Expressway, as well as areas along and just south of Homestead Road. Cul-de-sacs south of Pruneridge Avenue also experienced thefts, among other places around the city.
Mark Sanchez opened his Prius repair shop in 2019, before catalytic converter theft was on the minds of anyone parking their car.
“When I opened, I used to get one call every two weeks. Now I get five calls a week,” Sanchez said. “For the bigger shops I know, they get double or triple that.”
Sanchez said that Prius catalytic converter thefts are especially pricey, as a California law requires cars to be fitted with a California Air Resources Board-certified, or CARB-certified, catalytic converter, and the only way to get one is from Toyota directly, resulting in higher prices. Because Toyota has to make all of the replacements, there is a waitlist for converters for the third-generation Prius, made between 2010 and 2015.
“I have two customers who have been waiting six months for the part to ship from Toyota,” Sanchez said.
Adan’s repair, luckily, went quickly. His car is a second-generation Prius, and new catalytic converters for that generation are readily available. The price was better than it would have been elsewhere, too, according to Sanchez, who said he cut Adan a deal for the $3,000 replacement. Sanchez said the job usually goes for between $3,300 and $3,500.
Despite the theft, Adan wants to keep his car—he said the gas savings make it worthwhile in the long run. But Adan is aware that his car’s brand-new catalytic converter could get stolen yet again.
“This could happen again in the next year,” Adan said. "If I go to the gym, the grocery store, it could be stolen."
Multiple mechanics have said that shields are not always effective in preventing theft, and can make replacing a catalytic converter even more costly, since thieves will cut around the shield and remove more exhaust pipe, which also has to be replaced.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at email@example.com