The Mountain View Police Department is warning residents of a huge increase in catalytic converter thefts since regional shelter-in-place rules went into effect, with reports that 29 vehicles -- almost all Toyota Priuses -- have been targeted in the city since mid-March.
Police officials are calling the trend a case of criminals taking advantage of the stay at home orders aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, although catalytic converter thefts have been a growing problem for law enforcement agencies throughout the Bay Area since last year.
In many of the reported cases, thieves are targeting cars at night using a wrench or power tools to remove or cut off catalytic converters located in the vehicles' undercarriage. The parts are then sold for the precious metals contained inside, which have risen in value significantly starting in 2019, police said. Thieves can steal catalytic converters in a matter of minutes, and can go undetected even when brazenly stealing them in front of homes and apartments in broad daylight.
Mountain View police did not immediately respond to a request for more information, including the locations of the vehicles that were targeted.
A similar trend struck the city of San Mateo in February and Berkeley in January. San Mateo police reported that platinum, which is contained inside catalytic converters, has gone up in value and made the vehicle parts a lucrative opportunity for scrap metal.
Mountain View also had its own increase in catalytic converter thefts last September, albeit much smaller. Four converters were stolen in a nine-day period, and a fifth was tampered with but not stolen.
The clear trend in recent months, as well as in September 2019, as that the Toyota Prius is the overwhelming target of choice. Back in September, the belief was that Priuses are lightweight and easier to lift with a jack, making it a prime target for thefts. But in the latest statement, Mountain View police say it likely has to do with the quality of the metal inside the car part.
Catalytic converters act as a filter for exhaust in vehicles with an internal combustion engine, with the "catalyst" being the precious metals inside. Police say that hybrid vehicles tend to corrode these metals more slowly than a standard internal combustion engine vehicle, making it more valuable as scrap metal.
Police are recommending that residents park in well-lit areas and, if possible, inside a garage rather than on the street. Security settings on vehicles can often be set to activate in response to vibrations, which will go off if thieves attempt to use a reciprocating saw or other power tools. Police also suggest that engraving the vehicle identification number on the converter could alert scrap dealers that the part was stolen.
Other protective measures include welding or shearing off the heads of catalytic converter bolts and welding extra metal onto the exhaust system to make it harder to cut through with a saw.
Replacing a stolen catalytic converter can cost thousands of dollars, though some comprehensive car insurance plans cover the costs of the repair.