By Tony Bizjak, SACRAMENTO BEE
Article Created: 03/07/2008 02:32:06 AM PST
Susan White of Roseville turned the key in her Honda Passport recently after work and just about had a heart attack.
"It sounded like there were 10 Harleys around me," she said.
White killed the engine, called her auto club and learned about crime's latest trend: catalytic converter theft.
Converters, which reduce vehicle emissions, are a top target for car-part thieves internationally, including in Mole Valley, England, where police reportedly advised residents last week to scrawl names and phone numbers on their converters, just in case.
California Highway Patrol officials report rampant thefts statewide.
Bay Area officials made 14 felony arrests after a January sting operation at an Alameda converter shop, CHP officials said.
Criminals aren't going "green," police say. They're going for the gold. Converters include small amounts of precious metals, including platinum, as well as gold in some newer models. Rising thefts may be linked to spiraling market prices for those metals, according to police.
Platinum can be sold for more than $1,000 an ounce. And rhodium, another metal sometimes found in converters, can sell for more than $6,000 an ounce, according to the CHP. Some stolen converters are shipped overseas, where the metal is extracted cheaply. Unfortunately for victims, replacement converters are expensive on the retail market.
"They can sell them to a metal recycler for around $80, but it costs the victim a good
$1,000 to have them replaced," Roseville police spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther said. Her city reported 40 thefts in the past three months, many of them from Toyota 4Runners. Thieves typically strike at night, equipped like mechanics with creepers for sliding under vehicles, and saws and wrenches for uncoupling converters.
The converter from White's Honda was stolen at a freeway park-and-ride lot. But many are taken right out of victims' driveways.
Helen Barber walked out of her mom's house in Roseville one morning two weeks ago and saw bolts under her mom's Toyota. She peered at the undercarriage and, "Sure as heck, the catalytic converter is gone." Barber's mom, Sherri Cruse, who loves her pickup — "it's my baby" — lamented the theft to the neighborhood police officer. "He told me the same thing happened to him!" Cruse said.
Police in Roseville, Lincoln and Vacaville have made several arrests in recent weeks, and area agencies said they are sharing information, including about salvage yards that may have bought stolen converters.
Officials said such thefts are another reason to park vehicles in garages or install car alarms with motion sensors. Cruse said she will install surveillance cameras in front of her house. She had her mechanic shear the heads off the bolts holding the new converter.
"It will take them a long time to pop those nuts out of there," she said. "It is worth me not having to go through this again."