Catalytic converters in hot demand with thieves

Thefts of catalytic converters continue to plague San Francisco and the Peninsula, local law enforcement authorities said, as the global demand for metals rise.

Thieves have been targeting catalytic converters — which attach to exhaust pipes in automobiles to lower emissions — because of the bountiful amounts of platinum present in the devices, according to a recent report issued by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.

The thieves sell the catalytic converters to recycling plants. Once at a plant, the device is stripped, with the precious platinum sent to China for a robust profit, the report said.

Driven by catalytic converter thefts, metal robberies in San Mateo County increased 30 percent from 2004 to 2007, the data show.

San Francisco is noticing similar trends in catalytic convertor thievery, said Inspector Vince Repetto of the Police Department’s Auto Theft Division.

“You have these thieves who can go underneath a car with a little battery-powered saw and cut off the convertor in about a minute,” Repetto said. “Then they go to a metal scrap yard and fence the material for anywhere from $150 to $400.”

Repetto said a two-month surge in catalytic converter thefts has abated recently, due in large part to police shutting down several illegal scrap yards in the East Bay. Still, the ease and accessibility of the crime makes it difficult to prevent, he said.

“These crimes are pretty random,” Repetto said. “There isn't really a spot in The City where cars are particularly at risk, but we have noticed more and more occurrences in the outer neighborhoods, where the streets are a little quieter.”

Repetto said some models, particularly Mazda and Toyota SUVs, are specifically prone to theft because they have higher clearances and their catalytic convertors are located near the edge of their undercarriages, making them easier to nab.

Some drivers are having their vehicle identification numbers etched into their catalytic converters so they can be traced, Repetto said. There also are manufacturers who make steel cages to cover the converters.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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