Catalytic converter theft, which soared during the pandemic, is now falling

Reports of stolen devices drop by half as new legislation takes hold and additional resources are allocated

Illustration of colorful, futuristic cars


Catalytic converter theft in Los Angeles rocketed to unprecedented heights late last year. Victimized vehicle owners found themselves sometimes waiting months for a replacement for the device that limits harmful exhaust emissions. 


Each month from October 2022–January 2023, there were more than 900 reports of auto-part theft in the city, according to publicly available Los Angeles Police Department data. In 2018, there were commonly 150-200 reports each month.


Yet suddenly and quietly, auto-part theft in the city is tumbling. Counts have decreased for six consecutive months. There were 457 reports in June, according to police data.


Line chart of monthly auto part thefts in the city of Los Angeles


Sgt. Juvey Mejia, of the LAPD’s Commercial Crimes Division, attributed the decrease to multiple factors, including more attention being focused on the problem, and legislation that targets unscrupulous buyers of stolen goods.


“Over the last year or so, the LAPD and the city itself have been very proactive in trying to combat this catalytic converter theft trend,” Mejia said. “They put a lot of resources into it and it’s become a priority for the chief.”


Despite the progress, numbers are still historically high. Before 2020, there had never been more than 300 auto-part theft reports in a single month, according to police data. The monthly average last year was almost 600 thefts.


Bar chart of annual auto part thefts


Gone in a minute

Other items are sometimes stolen from vehicles, including headlights and airbags. But catalytic converters are favored by thieves because of their resale value, and the ability for swift removal. Someone can get under a car and cut away a catalytic converter in a minute, though thefts can also go wrong—in 2021 a would-be thief died when the Toyota Prius he was trying to steal from collapsed on and crushed him.


The rise in thefts can be attributed, in part, to the price of precious metals such as rhodium, palladium and platinum doubling between 2019 and 2022. Hybrid Toyota and Honda models are frequently targeted because the low-emission vehicles’ catalytic converters contain more high-value metals than other cars.


The wave of thefts garnered intense media coverage, as replacements cost thousands of dollars, and tight supply had some people waiting months (cars may not be drivable until a repair is made). The crisis extended well beyond Los Angeles. In February, the catalytic converter was stolen from the 27-foot-long Oscar Mayer Wienermobile while it was parked in Las Vegas.


Elected officials responded with new legislation. In April, a divided Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance allowing police to arrest someone in possession of a catalytic converter not connected to a vehicle. In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a pair of state laws, Senate Bill 1087 and Assembly Bill 1740, that target those who might buy stolen catalytic converters, with requirements for documentation that ensures the devices were not illegally taken or sold.


That is just the start. More than 90 anti-theft bills related to car parts have been advanced in 39 states, according to Nicholas Zeitlinger, a public affairs specialist with trade group the National Insurance Crime Bureau.


Zeitlinger said that, across the country, there has been a “host of legislative initiatives increasing requirements on catalytic converter and other auto parts sellers, metal recycling entities, and establishing penalties for unauthorized sellers.”


The etching effect

There are also proactive efforts to confront the problem. The LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department are using a new anti-theft technology called Insta-Etching to inscribe a car’s vehicle identification number on its catalytic converter. That makes the device easier to track if stolen. 


The multi-agency Task Force for Regional Auto Theft Prevention is hosting catalytic converter-etching events across the region. In one day, 70-90 cars can be labeled, said Lt. Oscar Veloz. One was held last month in Eagle Rock.


Other steps include having a mechanic install a strap or “cage” around a catalytic converter, though those do not always stop a thief.


The Sheriff’s Department has conducted investigations into organized crime rings stealing catalytic converters, Veloz said. The efforts have led to the confiscation of “huge amounts” of stolen car parts, he noted. That includes a 2021 operation when LASD personnel recovered 250 catalytic converters


The department also conducts checks on businesses, including recycling centers and metal companies, in search of stolen catalytic converters, Veloz added. 


From July 1, 2022-June 30, 2023, auto-part thieves were most active in car-filled Downtown, where 457 thefts were tabulated. Other communities with high theft counts were Koreatown (222) and Van Nuys (199). 


Table of neighborhoods in Los Angeles with most auto part thefts


More than half of all car-part thefts within that period took place while a vehicle was parked on a street. The next most frequent location was a parking lot.


How we did it: We examined publicly available crime data from the Los Angeles Police Department from Jan. 1, 2010–June 30, 2023. Learn more about our data here.


LAPD data only reflects crimes that are reported to the department, not how many crimes actually occurred. In making our calculations, we rely on the data the LAPD makes publicly available. LAPD may update past crime reports with new information, or recategorize past reports. Those revised reports do not always automatically become part of the public database.


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