On a chilly January morning, “Arthur,” one of San Francisco’s many departmental investigators, turned the key in his city-issued Prius. He was greeted not with the anodyne hum of San Francisco’s most ubiquitous vehicle but “the roar of an M-1 Abrams, tank.”
He was shocked. But he wasn’t surprised (the terrified old lady across the street walking her little dog? She was surprised).
San Francisco is a town founded on an extraction industry and, ever since Day One, chiselers have thrived by extracting from the extractors. More to the point: As anyone who drives an aging Toyota Prius knows, street parking in San Francisco is a bit like playing quarterback in the option formation, or drinking from the well during a cholera outbreak; sooner or later, you’re going to get popped.
So, a nanosecond after Arthur was greeted with high-decibel engine noise, he knew: Ah, shit. The catalytic converter is gone.
And, a nanosecond later: How do I get this car from where it is to where it can be fixed?
And then: There is no way in hell I can drive this car anywhere. I’ll scare small children.
The Prius was towed to the city’s Central Shops, which handles maintenance for police cruisers, fire rigs, and San Francisco’s fleet of “juicy Priuses,” in the words of one city official bewildered by mounting catalytic converter thefts.
Your humble narrator recently dialed up Central Shops and reached a mechanic there. And, he had lots to do: “We have a whole bunch of cars in line to have their catalytic converters replaced because they were stolen,” he said. In front of him were “six of them, all waiting in line to get them replaced.”
The people stealing catalytic converters are rational actors. The reason they do this is that to call the metals in Prius converters “precious” is a jarring understatement. It’d be like saying Kanye West has “issues.”
Platinum, you’ve heard of. It’s in there. As of Friday, it’s valued at $1,018 per ounce. But platinum is one of the least precious of the precious metals in a Prius converter. There’s also palladium ($1,600 per ounce) and rhodium ($12,000 per ounce). Yes — $12,000 per ounce. That’s $192,000 a pound. And $12,000 is a low-end price for rhodium; in March, 2021, it was valued at $29,800 an ounce.
There isn’t any gold in a catalytic converter, but it’s valued at $1,920 per ounce, to put things in context.
So, it’s little surprise that catalytic converter theft is endemic in California, where lower-emitting converters contain more of these precious metals. To paraphrase Willie Sutton, catalytic converters are where the money is.
Aging Priuses, which have particularly valuable converters, are among thieves’ preferred vehicles. In San Francisco, you can hold your breath, inhale only when you spot an aging Prius, and go about your life normally. So, clearly, San Francisco drivers are taking it on the chin; more than half a dozen extremely busy area mechanics I spoke with are struggling to obtain Toyota catalytic converters for their customers. This is a job that requires weeks, if not months, of waiting for parts, and can cost upwards of $3,500.
The San Francisco Police Department has not yet answered our request for the tally of reported converter thefts in 2021 and 2022.
Speaking of the cops, any notion that city vehicles are somehow immune to converter theft was immolated late last year when Mission Local broke the story that four marked police vehicles were relieved of their catalytic converters while parked outside the San Francisco Police Department Special Operations Bureau at 17th and DeHaro streets.
“The people engaging in this activity really don’t think much of the police if they think they can steal catalytic converters from the best of us,” said an SFPD higher-up at the time. And he was right. “They’ll get away with it, too,” grumbled a fellow cop. And he was right, too.
“The best of us,” incidentally, refers to the fact that the police SWAT team is housed at 17th and DeHaro. Intriguingly, the “rubber room” where problem cops are stashed to wait out their days is located here, too. Meaning both the best and the worst cops could’ve potentially interrupted these thieves, either of which would figure to be a terrifying proposition for a criminal caught red-handed.
Well, evidently not. This was not the first break-in on police vehicles at that site, and it wasn’t the last, either. But the police are hardly the hardest-hit department in San Francisco.
At our behest, the Office of the City Administrator compiled maintenance data from Central Shops (the kindly city employee who spearheaded this effort for us recently had the converter stolen out of her Prius, too).
In the last several fiscal years, some 217 city vehicles have had their catalytic converter stolen. This represents some 7.3 percent of the city’s fleet, and came at a cost of nearly $600,000 (the decision on whether to install anti-theft devices is being made on a department-to-department basis).
Less than a million bucks is ostensibly a drop in the bucket for a city with a $14 billion budget like San Francisco, but budgets do not work like Uncle Scrooge’s money bin. Each department only allots so much for maintenance, and these pervasive thefts blow up line items. And, perhaps of more relevance to the general public, they keep city workers from being able to do their jobs; a building inspector cannot hit 12 sites a day via Muni; an investigator tailing a suspect cannot simply hope that person takes public transit and abandon the observations otherwise.
The real magnitude of this city’s problem with catalytic converter thefts comes into focus, however, if you winnow down the city’s fleet to the types of vehicles that thieves prey upon. And that’d be aging Priuses — but not only aging Priuses. Thieves also gravitate toward big Ford trucks, like the F-150s, 250s and 350s cruising around city streets. These are easy to get underneath and, on some models, have two catalytic converters. Public Works spokeswoman Rachel Gordon says her department had “20 to 30” trucks hit in the past year and change.
1 in every 14 city vehicles is a Prius. But they
made up over a third of catalytic converter thefts.
Priuses were almost four
times more likely to be hit
than other city vehicles.
1 in every 14 city vehicles is a Prius.
But they made up over a third
of catalytic converter thefts.
Graphic by Will Jarrett.
The city has lots more big trucks than it does Priuses, but lots more Priuses have been ripped off.
San Francisco, per the Office of the City Administrator, has 418 Priuses in its fleet. Since fiscal 2018, 57 of them have either had their converters replaced, are waiting to have them replaced at Central Shops, or were put out of service due to a converter theft (14 percent). But wait — there’s more.
Complicating matters, Central Shops does not do work for the MTA, airport, or on many of the PUC vehicles. And the Priuses from each of those agencies get jacked, too. SFO reported that two of their nine Priuses were hit in the last year and change. The PUC, which has four maintenance shops across Northern California, says that nine of its Priuses were targeted in recent years. And the Municipal Transportation Agency notes that of its 34 Priuses, 10 have had their converters stolen.
Don Jones, the city’s director of Fleet Management, told us that the overall Prius fleet count of 418 should include the vehicles from the PUC, MTA and SFO — even though his shop doesn’t maintain all these cars. Adding in the theft totals from those three departments, it ups the tally to some 78 victimized city Priuses (19 percent).
But wait — there’s more.
A Fire Department official told us that “six to 10” SFFD Priuses have been hit in the last 18 months. But these won’t show up on the city’s list because the fire department goes to a private vendor. Also not showing up would be the department’s staff physician having her private car — a Prius — struck in broad daylight while sitting in front of SFFD headquarters.
“They are caught in supply chain issues and these are low-priority for them because they’re administrative vehicles,” the fire department official tells us. “A Prius is obviously not going to be in a high-speed response.”
The SFFD move to go to a private vendor was described by the fire official as more expedient and less costly. It is unclear if other departments have similar arrangements, which would only add to the theft total.
As it is, that puts the total at perhaps 88 impacted city Priuses out of 418 — 21 percent.
Perhaps twice a week, Tony Espinosa gets a call from a Bay Area resident. And that’s notable, because the proprietor of Nevada Mufflers and Auto Service is in Reno, Nevada.
Their question: Can he put a cheaper catalytic converter on their Prius — the kind that’s legal in Nevada and 48 other states, but not California?
It’s an understandable request. This would cost a customer around $1,800 at Espinosa’s shop, compared to around twice that, or even a bit more, for a California-legal part.
But he won’t do it. “If you have a California emissions system, you have to put in the right part,” he says. “If you don’t, the check-engine light comes on, and it comes right back to me.”
There’s a sticker on your car that states if it meets the Federal EPA standards or the stricter California one. “There are some cars that are made for California emissions but sell in the Reno area,” Espinosa explains. This is a new spin on the old term “sticker shock.”
California-legal converters don’t cost more because they’re organic or artisanal or anything like that. Rather, as noted above, they have more precious metals in them. And it’s the precious metals that act to lower emissions.
Cheaper, crappier converters are cheaper because they’re crappier. It’s not complicated.
“By significantly reducing the use of precious metals that provide the catalytic reaction, and reducing the quality of the internal parts, uncertified parts can be offered at very low prices,” explains Lynda Lambert, a spokeswoman for the California Air Resources Board.
In other words: You get what you pay for. Or, since this an emissions device, we get what you pay for.
“In some cases,” Lambert continues, “parts offered for sale in other states have no catalyst materials at all and are sold to only appear to be a catalyst.”
How much do California’s strict emissions standards help? Lambert says that they have resulted in 36 fewer tons of smog-forming emissions per day over the past decade, and up to a 70 percent reduction compared to vehicles meeting the standard kept in the 49 other states.
So, that’s great. Less great is that these exacting California standards essentially reduce the supplier of Prius catalytic converters to the manufacturer. Which clearly can’t make them faster than thieves can steal them.
And that’s a problem for “Arthur” and other city workers forced to beg, borrow and steal vehicles to do their jobs. In his case, part of his job is interacting with people who don’t want to be interacted with, and handing them legal material they don’t want to be handed. It’s useful in such times to be able to fast-walk to a car, lock the door and drive off. And, when driving off, it’s beneficial to not sound like an M-1 Abrams tank.
At first, Arthur was told it would take a month to fix his car. Then he was told it may take six months. The official prognosis, he now says, is, “fuck only knows.”
Around one out of every five cars in his department have had their converters ripped off. So at least he has plenty of colleagues to commiserate with.
“We whine together,” he says. “We could start a catalytic converter support group. It could be run by the city. Hey, I’m sure we could get mental health assistance on this.”
Have they no shame!
” How much do California’s strict emissions standards help? Lambert says that they have resulted in 36 fewer tons of smog-forming emissions per day over the past decade, and up to a 70 percent reduction compared to vehicles meeting the standard kept in the 49 other states. ”
That is remarkable! While our lungs appreciate this, it is sure hard on the wallet! Glad I no longer own a car!
Maybe the San Francisco supervisors are in on this? They are trying to ban private cars in San Francisco, so what better way than to allow the thieves to have their way. The more thefts, people might abandon their cars entirely. Fat Chance!
Sounds like a solid conspiracy theory to me.
the idea of a tracking device is likely impractical as the temperature of a catalytic converter exceeds 1000F.
prius owners need:
1) cat shield
2) viper car alarm (for any lifts)
it’s the first things I got when i read about the rash of thefts 4 years ago
All we need to do is make stealing catalytic converters illegal. Better yet, let’s make catalytic converters illegal. That will surely solve the problem.
The state needs to let us use cheaper aftermarket catalytic converters to replace the one’s stolen by the creeps and criminals. They are on eBay all day long for $100 to $150 but can’t be used in California or New York. As long as the criminals can sell them for big money we will have this problem. We Have to shut down the people that purchase them until we can get it under control.
Sometimes I really have to say, “Let’s de-fund the police!” – because I really don’t believe in paying the salaries of people who cannot or will not perform the tasks of their jobs. The job of the police is to investigate crimes, and to arrest criminals. Our police, for reasons I cannot even begin to understand, are somehow doing neither. I recommend that we all refuse to pay our property taxes until the city provides us with the services that other communities take for granted – safety, cleanliness, and a police force that does their job. People have witnessed these thefts in progress, called the cops – and gotten zero response. No wonder people think they can come to San Francisco from everywhere else in the nation, get free money, do dangerous drugs like meth and fentanyl, commit crimes, beat up and prostitute women, live in tents, and throw garbage all over the streets – all with no consequences. And no, I am absolutely NOT a Republican or right-winger. Just someone who is deeply saddened by the state of the city I have called home for over 3 decades.
This is not a difficult problem. All you need is enforcement of already existing laws. The buyers need to get hit with felony time on receiving stolen property, and the money will dry up. Of course, if there is a dirty cop anywhere in the loop, nothing gets done. So there we are
I am a retire metal fabricator who now runs a stainless steel fabrication shop with jig welding equipment.
We specialize in fabrication of stainless steel catalytik converter anthitheft devices.
This product locks on during the 15 minute install time and cannot be removed unless cut off with an acetylene torch.
Looking for new dealers selling to new car dealers, fleet operators,
Taxi cab complaies and municipal fleets.
At least city vehicles are owned by the city and employees don’t foot the bill.
My sister-in-law’s Prius converter was stolen in October and they told her it was going to be 3 months for a replacement. Well, in January they told her it is going to be another 5 months.
The lack of consequences for criminals these days (and for people who buy/sell the stolen parts) has only emboldened the thefts over the past few years.
We had a catalytic converter stolen from our 2012 Prius last August. The ETA for the Toyota part was April ‘23! With help from the BAR referee, we found and bought an approved CA after market part. I was lucky, persistent and paid extra $ to save the car. So, not only are Prius owners being victimized by thieves, they are also being shortchanged by Toyota, who has made a business decision not to make the part but to plow resources into their new Prius line. This really warrants an inquiry. . Also, engraving parts should be required from Toyota and they should help with anti theft shields
I’d hope the city is considering putting anti theft devices on their vehicles. These are metal guards that go over the catalytic converter. I see guards made for Priuses are as little as $60 on ebay.
I have a feeling a thief could pop off a $60 eBay device like a toy.
These devices deter thieves but do not prevent them. SFO has installed something like this and MTA has done so on the cars that have had converters stolen. Public Works is proactively putting in devices on its trucks. Other than that, it’s a department-by-department decision. Don Jones of Central Shops is certainly right when he says this is cheaper than replacing the converter. Doesn’t have a wait time of months either.
why not switch to electric, no catalytic converter needed
I’m curious how many of the vehicles were “take home” vehicles for the staff, a pretty common perk in some cities. Not the utility trucks, of course. Are the vehicles being parked on city streets or in supposedly secure lots?
Staff doesn’t take home the vehicles. They are returned to the garage. Overnight is rare.
Had mine stolen twice.
CARB, where’s the help that victims need after being robbed? I’ve been waiting 4 months for a part and Toyota just said the ETA is no longer valid for March and has no ETA. Help us. Some of us just want to get out of the car. Make an exception so we can stop paying for cars we want to sell. It’s unfair we’re stuck with paying insurance and registration for a car we can’t use for 6+ months at this point.
Vehicle emissions require driving. How many city employees are willing and able to ride the electric bike shares? Oh, are they worried they’ll get run over on the dangerous streets they designed for more car through-put?
If you think the stolen catalytic converters are being shipped or delivered to companies out of state, then this becomes a federal matter, one in which the FBI might take an interest. Maybe there needs to be enough public outcry that they do so.
Of course, it wouldn’t shock me if California recycling firms are simply ignoring the law and continuing to strip the precious metals out of stolen parts. It’s too bad we seem to have completely forgotten how to do law enforcement.
Can we have the city set up a sting operation where a tracking device would be added to a converter and then find the real crooks?
Harry, great idea—
That would be the intelligent and logical thing so it won’t be done!
Any impact from the bills signed last fall? SB 1087, authored by California State Senator Lena Gonzalez, and AB 1740, authored by Assembly member Al Muratsuchi, require catalytic converter recyclers to keep detailed records and only allows for used catalytic converters to be sold by authorized parties.
For a Prius, you really can’t buy an after-market converter. So that doesn’t seem germane. If anything, this would just seem to shift the business out-of-state.
The used converters only being sold by authorized parties, wasn’t referring to replacements for victimized vehicles. It’s in reference to who can legally sale “used” converters to recyclers. This epidemic is so pervasive and inflicts both public and private sectors with substantial financial burdens, both repair wise and extreme vehicle down times. Need nonnegotiable mandatory jail time for sellers and buyers of undocumented converters, and loss of business license to noncompliant recyclers. The clock is ticking towards point of no return, to regain a civilized society!
Yes there is a long wait (think Casablanca) in the meantime, people are straight piping it (bi-passing it entirely to the rear muffler) until their parts arrive (if ever) or until it is due for a smog check, at which point they scrap it.
It’s wild to me that police departments around the Bay have all seemingly decided that managing theft is too hard. There are only so many scrap metal dealers here, all of them are supposed to keep detailed records, and at least a few are getting a pass on the obviously stolen catalytic converters they’re dealing in.
Last December, I woke up at 3AM hearing my neighbors van getting its converter stolen. The whole operation lasted about 30 seconds, there’s no stopping the individual thefts. However, a competent police department could easily shut down the dealers if they deign to care.
I had four catalytic converters stolen from my 2002 Toyota Prius. For the last three of them, the vandals cut through the catalytic converter shield like it was butter, so that was a waste of a few hundred dollars.
Theft #2 was reported to the SFPD – including the license plate of the thieves – and SFPD did not even contact me. When I contacted them, I was told the car was probably stolen. There was no interest by SFPD in investigating.
Older Priuses are built with the catalytic converter ready to cut and steal, I learned from the guys at SF Toyota service center on Geary. I found out that the older models were high up on a nationally known list of cars most vandalized.
I realized SFPD wasn’t doing a thing, so I traded in my car for one that is not targeted by vandals. Now, I don’t look under my auto (a newer Toyota hybrid not targeted by vandals) every time I move it.
Don’t confuse thieves with vandals and vandalism.
These are drug addled thieves stealing because it pays so well.
It would take serious prosecution and prison time to stop the thieves and buyers of the cats. I can’t see that happening in San Francisco, or any of our liberal bastions across the west coast.
I disagree and think this more organized crime, the thief’s get a cut, the person who has contact to sell gets a cut and the final buyer gets a cut. The SFPD need to go after the people buying these from the organized gangs of crooks.
Don’t buy a Prius.
It would take 1 day of investigation to find out who was stealing the converters, who ended up receiving them and where they got cut up by simple putting a tracking device in the converter and following it. I lived in SF for 2 years and moved due to crime myself. I got a bullet through my wall when living near the Fillmore as well as was accosted on public transit. I hate driving up to SF now because when I park my car, I figure it has a high chance of being broken into because the city has completely given up on policing anything since there are no penalties for anything. The newest thing is the biker gangs that take over the streets, blowing through lights, stopping traffic and causing hazards that nobody is doing anything about. You get what you vote for. There is zero chance I would ever live there again.
The flocks of bikes are nothing new. They come and go, some major crash or the like puts and end to it. Ten years ago or so, there was a gang called “Chicken Sh.t” and then chief Suhr threw up his arms declaring there’s nothing that can be done. As chance has it, I remember riding bicycle through the Presidio one day, coming across a handful of these guys handcuffed by the park police sitting on the curb waiting to be picked up by the paddy wagon. So yeah, right SFPD, the usual vibes. IIRC, that crew’s end came in earnest when they attacked and killed an Uber driver on 101 that sent them into hiding.
“There’s nothing we can do” is the city’s mantra on crime and homelessness. Aren’t you getting sick and tired of hearing that lame excuse? The sad fact is that this city lacks the political will and imagination to tackle its very serious issues. “The city that can” WON’T.
People need a way to make a living, it’s not their fault. That is the attitude of the Mission district that seems to support thieves.
I don’t think the Mission District “supports thieves” but this site can no longer support dudes using multiple names to leave inane comments about theft.
Please get a new hobby or branch out a bit,
Welcome to big city living, San Francisco. And don’t forget: crime is down.
Did the city put “Cat Plates” or some other sort of theft deterrent on the cars? If not, yet another case of total mismanagement by the city. It is “we the taxpayers” who pay for the incompetence. `
Some departments do, some do not. The Airport has done this proactively for all its Priuses. The MTA puts one in when a car is hit. And Public Works proactively puts in a device now every time a truck goes in for scheduled maintenance at Central Shops. But these devices don’t prevent thefts, they just deter them, like the mega-version of The Club.