Thieves want to steal your cat

With the economy struggling and metal prices trending up over the last few years, drivers in La Cañada Flintridge have been getting hit by catalytic converter thieves.

Located in the exhaust systems of modern vehicles, catalytic converters help clean exhaust emissions. Because they contain components made of platinum and other valuable metals, catalytic converters, or “cats,” are tempting targets for thieves.

With seven such thefts reported to the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station since March 26, this trend is again on the rise.

Sgt. Ray Harley of the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station said that the frequency of catalytic converter thefts fluctuates, but some areas in town are hit harder than others.

“Well, there’s no pattern in terms of when they’re happening, but there is a pattern, in terms of where they’re happening,” Harley said.

Harley cited the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA parking lot at 1930 Foothill Blvd. and the medical offices parking lot at 1346 Foothill Blvd. as the two most common locations for these thefts in La Cañada Flintridge.

Surprisingly, six of the seven recent thefts occurred during daylight hours. Harley said that cordless power tools have made stealing a catalytic converter a matter of minutes, which means less chance to get caught.

“These things are easy to remove,” said Harley. “Now these guys have cordless reciprocating saws, and can just cut these babies out in no time and all.”

Harley said that the thieves generally work in teams of two to four people, with part of the crew serving as a lookout while the others work on removing the converters.

In addition to watching out for police, lookouts can also provide cover to passersby who might unwittingly witness the theft.

I think it’s easy enough for these guys to play it off and appear as though they’re working on a car,” Harley said. “There’s no window smashing going on and somebody reaching in and grabbing stuff.”

Dan Monroe, president of C&M Metals in Los Angeles, said that the higher quality the converter, the greater the scrap value. The converters in Toyotas frequently are targeted. Four of the seven recent thefts involved Toyotas.

“The whole point [of the converter] is keeping emissions down, and Toyota has stepped up and uses a pretty good converter, and those things range from 100 to 125 dollars a pop,” said Monroe, speaking of their value as scrap.

Of course, the cash thieves get from selling a converter for scrap can’t compare to the price victims have to pay to replace them. Robert Zamudio, manager at La Cañada Auto Repair, said that new converters cost anywhere from $200 to $1000.

“Some cars have one, some cars have four, so you multiply that by four, I mean, one vehicle, you could spend 4000 bucks to replace all the catalytic converters,” said Zamudio.

Pricey as they may be, not replacing a stolen converter isn’t an option.

“Oh, there’s no way you’re going to pass emissions without it; it’s the law, you have to have it on your car,” Zamudio said.

Harley said as a precaution, car owners could purchase an anti-theft device or engrave a number onto the converter, such as a driver’s license number, that could be used by police to identify the owner in case of theft.

Capt. David Silversparre of the Crescenta Valley Sheriff’s Station told the La Cañada Flintridge City Council Monday night that the Glendale Police Department has identified some suspects in catalytic converter thefts in Glendale. Although he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the investigation, Silversparre said it would reveal if there was any connection to the thefts in La Cañada Flintridge.

Still, there’s only so much that can be done against catalytic converter thieves, Harley said.

“It’s hard to 100% guarantee yourself to avoid a theft like this,” he said. “You’ve got to park your car and go into stores and businesses and do your thing.”

Although scrap metal buyers must take anti-theft measures as of 2008, Monroe said that scrap metal thieves are now selling their wares on the black market, making it even harder for police to recover stolen goods.

These measures, imposed by the state Legislature, require scrap buyers to photocopy the driver’s license and take a thumbprint of scrap sellers, then hold certain types of scrap for three days before paying in order to allow law enforcement to track stolen materials.

“Guys come in here, they say, ‘Hey, we want to sell some converters,’ and we say, ‘OK, we need to see some ID,’ and they walk right out,” said Monroe.

Harley said that he didn’t know where the stolen converters were being sold, but he’s sure they’re going somewhere.

“It could be that there’s some questionable scrap yards out there, I don’t know,” said Harley. “Either way, these items, are like any other black market item, they’re easy enough to unload somewhere.”

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