Catalytic converter thefts strike campus

By Zachary Chen and Cole Allen, Oct. 5, 2021

Cal Poly Pomona University Police released a crime alert on Sept. 20 to all students, faculty and staff regarding a pattern of catalytic converter thefts in parking lots around the campus.

Since Aug. 24, six vehicles have had their catalytic converters stolen in Lot U and Lot B, with the targeted vehicles including Toyota, Hondas and cars with a higher clearance off the ground.

“We need everyone to be situationally aware when walking through parking lots,” said Interim University Police Chief David Hall. “Make a report if you see anything suspicious, we need the community to keep an eye open.”

The University Police Department’s crime alert, sent Sept. 20, specified the B and U lots as areas of campus thefts. (Zachary Chen | The Poly Post)

Theft of catalytic converters saw a surge during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, catalytic converter thefts across the nation rose from 108 per month in 2018 to an average of 1,203 per month in 2020. Currently, California is one of the top five states for catalytic converter thefts alongside Minnesota, Texas, North Carolina and Illinois.

For gasoline and diesel cars, a catalytic converter is an attachment that goes on a vehicle’s exhaust system, converting and reducing the toxic pollutants produced by the engine of the car. Inside the converter are valuable precious metals thieves target, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. In recent years, the value for these metals has gone up significantly, with Rhodium hitting a high of $27,000 per ounce in April.

Sources: National Insurance Crime Bureau; Kitco (Nicolas Hernandez | The Poly Post)

Isaac Canales, a computer information systems student at nearby Mt. San Antonio College, fell victim to this crime and made the unfortunate discovery when he parked his recently purchased 2007 Honda Accord on a late June night on the street outside of his apartment.

“I was approaching my car when my neighbor hailed me over to tell me that someone took my converter,” Canales said. “When I turned on my car it was super loud and I was like ‘What the hell happened?’ It happened so fast, there was no way I would have caught up to them even if I noticed in time.”

Canales recently purchased the car two days prior to the theft. For a crime that most likely took under five minutes to carry out, it will ultimately cost him over $2,000 to replace the stolen part. Without insurance to cover the bill, paying out of pocket for a replacement is a steep financial burden for most students.

Finding a replacement may not be as simple as handing the money over either. For California car owners, catalytic converter replacements are specific and must be certified by the California Air Resources Board, or CARB. With California having more elaborate emission laws, CARB-legal catalytic converters tend to have higher precious metal loads to meet the stricter emission standards, typically putting an additional cost to the price of the replacement.

As to alternatives for a replacement, not many options stand out. Canales had a muffler shop weld exhaust piping to where his catalytic converter used to reside: a temporary solution that also has its drawbacks.

Paul Nissenson, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering currently teaches an Air Pollution Course and cited the downsides of not replacing a catalytic converter.

“If your goal is to simply have the exhaust go out the muffler, then sure it may work,” said Nissenson. “The point is then you would have a bunch of untreated toxic pollutants being released into the air. The goal is to reduce pollution from cars and catalytic converters can do that in the exhaust line.”

Additionally, cars without a catalytic converter will not be able to pass California Smog Regulations and therefore drivers will not be able to renew their car registration when the time comes.

With the problem showing no signs of going away, and the consequences of having a catalytic converter stolen being severe for many, there are preventative measures one can pursue to help lower the chances of having their catalytic converter stolen. Some measures:

-Having a mechanic secure a metal shield around the converter.

-Welding the catalytic converter down to the vehicle.

-Engraving a VIN number onto the catalytic converter for identification.

-Raising the alarm that goes off when a locked car gets touched by thieves.

“Take a minute when you’re walking around; be observant of what’s happening around you,” said Hall. “It’s nice to be aware of what’s around so you can check yourself. If you see anything suspicious make a report, so we can take a look.”

Campus community members are encouraged to report any suspicious activity to the University Police Department at 909-869-3070.

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