Recession watch: Catalytic converter thefts test car owners' mettle


This post is part of a series about real-life signs we're in a recession.

My brother-in-law recently wound up paying a lot more than he expected when he left my nephew's Toyota Tacoma in the Oakland Airport's long-term parking for the weekend. When he returned from his trip and turned the key in the ignition, the truck let out a roar that would deafen even the most hardened Harley driver, and David knew he'd joined the growing number of victims of catalytic converter theft nationwide.

Thieves have taken to removing catalytic converters, which help control emissions, from the underside of parked vehicles. The converters contain trace amounts of platinum and rhodium--which go for about $2,054 and $9,278 per ounce, respectively--and can be sold on the black market for a couple hundred dollars each. Victims, however, pay much more than that for replacement parts: My brother-in-law shelled out almost $2,000 for a new converter for my nephew's truck.

While David has pledged to use only short-term parking at the airport from now on, that precaution might not be enough. For one thing, trucks like the Tacoma and SUVs like the Toyota 4Runner--the vehicle David owns and drives to the train station each morning--are among the hardest hit since they sit high off the ground, making their catalytic converters easy to remove from underneath. For another, those who are of the mind to slide under a vehicle with hacksaw in hand don't seem to be picky about where they strike: Reports of catalytic converter thefts have come from day care centers in Memphis, carpool lots in Michigan and car dealerships in Ohio.

Since this is a crime of opportunity--and since thieves are grabbing every opportunity they can--prevention is tricky. Seems the best way to avoid becoming a victim is to drive low to the ground. Or maybe just ride a Harley.