Oakland resident Andrew Waterman documented his neighbor's sawed-off catalytic converter theft earlier this year. Converter thefts have risen tenfold in the last four years in California and across the country. Credit: Andrew Waterman

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed two laws this week that will make it harder for people to sell stolen catalytic converters, crucial pieces of vehicle exhaust systems that reduce pollution. SB 1087 and AB 1740 will require recycling centers to maintain databases of all catalytic converter parts, including who they’re purchasing converters from, and make it illegal to buy converters from unauthorized parties. Starting January 1, 2023, when the laws go into effect, only car owners, dealers, and disassemblers will be able to sell them. 

“We’re going to get to one of the root causes of this crime, and that’s those brokers and those middlemen who pay top dollar for stolen parts,” Newsom said in a video Sunday. 

The bills will also require scrap metal businesses to record vehicle identification numbers and a driver’s license connected to each sale, creating a searchable database accessible to local authorities. In addition, recyclers are also expected to ask people selling converters for a vehicle’s title, to prove they’re the owner.

“It’s great to see the state finally take action,” Oakland Councilmember Sheng Thao said on Twitter after the bill was signed. “This simple, common sense change will have a huge impact on theft.”

According to resellers, a single catalytic converter can be sold anywhere between $50 and $250, with some converters from late-2000s Prius models going above $1,000. But the repair cost is usually even higher. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, average prices range between $1,000 and $3,000. People in Oakland, however, have told The Oaklandside the cost is often over $4,000 when you include labor and towing. 

And these high costs are usually only for one theft. Some Oakland residents have reported converter thefts multiple times within months of each other. 

Rod Miller, a retired North Oakland resident, said he had to pay a $500 insurance deductible to fix his Honda Accord this past summer, which was money he needed for other needs. He had to leave his Honda in the shop for six months after the converter was stolen and was waiting for parts overseas. Then the converter of his other car, a salvaged Toyota Prius, was also stolen in June. After this, he decided to donate the hybrid car instead of paying another large sum. His wife was sentimental about the car, so she took a picture of it as it was driven away. 

“I don’t know why people steal converters in the first place. It did force us to [take out everything in] the garage for the first time in 20 years, to park the car to avoid another theft,” he said. 

Catalytic converter theft has increased because of the valuable metals such as rhodium, platinum, and palladium in them. These metals have increased in price in the last few years due to inflation and a lack of access to precious metals used in major technology products. 

In the 1970s, cars added converters to reduce toxic pollutants released from internal combustion engines. The converters are part of the exhaust pipe and are noticeable as a stomach-like pouch in the middle of a car floor, which makes it easy for thieves to strip using a saw. As all cars must have a working catalytic converter to pass a smog test, the issue causes a lot of grief and significant loss of time and money. 

In the last four years, thefts of catalytic converters have gone up tenfold to more than 18,000 in 2021 in California. A CARFAX survey of more than 60,000 auto body shops in the U.S. earlier this year found it was a top service. 

There is no specific number of thefts in Oakland, but based on accounts from social media and reports on the city’s SeeClickFix site, the problem is rife. 

The new California laws were modeled on Oregon’s Senate Bill 803, which took effect earlier this year. People there looked forward to the change, but it appears that it has not reduced black market sales or theft numbers. Shops have described cars coming in five times daily with new converter theft issues. With the low availability of parts, cars are sometimes grounded for weeks, if not months. 

The market for materials may not be centralized, according to some reports. For example, pawn shops may take on some materials. Still, the belief is that many resellers are melting down the converters so they can sell the base materials overseas through online retailers. 

Some Oakland residents are not confident the law will lead to any significant changes. 

“No freaking way [things will change],” West Oakland resident Danielle Guercio told The Oaklandside. “People figure out a niche, and they exploit it. We can’t wait for legislation to stop thieves’ entire operations. There should be on-the-ground police response to what’s happening, and there isn’t.” 

Guercio owns a 2001 Honda Accord, one of the most common cars stripped of converters. Hers was stolen earlier this year on the fourth attempt by the same group of people. The first few times, she and her partner scared away the thieves by yelling at them, only losing parts of the muffler and some pipes, which they paid to get fixed. But on the fourth attempt, the thieves took the converter at four in the morning. Guercio said OPD asked them to complete a form online but has not checked in with them since. 

Instead of fixing the car for $3,000, she decided to leave the car out front as a sort of decoy. She even added a sign on the window to let anyone know there is no converter left to be taken. And she has no plans to fix the car. 

“We’re not going to be a catalytic converter garden for people!” she joked.

Some Oakland residents have decided not to fix their cars after a catalytic converter theft because the cost is too high. West Oakland resident Danielle Guercio decided to leave her car on the street with a sign warning would-be thieves that there’s nothing left to steal. Credit: Danielle Guercio

Several people we spoke with who need their car to drive to their job or public transportation hubs have been negatively affected by thefts. 

Sara Brink, a Cleveland Heights resident, had her car’s converter stolen last month and will have to pay nearly $4,000 out of pocket to repair it. She said she won’t be able to drive her car until next year. That forced her to bike to the nearby West Oakland bike station for three weeks, even though she feared the area’s poor infrastructure and red-light-driving cars. But then her chronic back pain flared up, and she tried to take the 62-line AC Transit bus, which she says never arrives on time. She’s relied on private car service and GIG Car Share rental cars since then. A couple of weeks ago, though, a tire exploded during a GIG ride, and Brink had to pay for a $1,400 tow. 

“So I find myself having to personally and literally pay for social and political failures, just to be able to work,” she said in an email letter to her councilmember. “I tried to do the responsible thing by taking the bus to the South Bay rather than driving… just getting to and from work has become an onerous burden.”

Oakland resident Andrew Waterman, who has recently seen two thefts of catalytic converts in his neighborhood, said he has tried to catch people with his camera at his home but has never succeeded.

“It makes me afraid of leaving my car on the street,” he said. “After that happened to my neighbor, I started thinking, I just can’t leave any of my cars on the street, but it’s also just a sense that at night, people are out there to get you.” 

He says he doesn’t believe the Newsom law will have any effect. 

“The law criminalizes buying and selling converters except through sanctioned regulated channels, but they are already not going to well-reputed muffler shops or other places,” said Waterman.

The manager of a local smog testing site told The Oaklandside that he also does not believe it will change the situation. He says it’s not always easy to determine the serial numbers of catalytic converters and connect them to individual cars and that any database system that will help keep track of them is likely to take years to get going. 

“I highly doubt it will work, but it’s worth the effort,” said the mechanic, who asked not to be identified. 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.