'Like a sitting duck': The catalytic converter theft spree is hitting old Toyota Priuses

Los Angeles, CA - September 06: Nam Trinh stands for a portrait with her 2008 Prius that had its catalytic converter stolen four times over a span of six months at her house on Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. It was stolen twice from outside her home in Eagle Rock; once in Sacramento; and once in Las Vegas, while parked in the garage at the MGM Grand. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Nam Trinh, who drives a 2008 Prius, had her catalytic converter stolen four times since October. "By the fourth time, I was numb," said Trinh of Eagle Rock. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Nam Trinh knew something was wrong one morning in October when she turned on her 2008 Toyota Prius and heard a throaty roar, like a plane taking off.

Trinh had her wedge-shaped car repaired. But she heard the telltale growl again in January while she was in Sacramento. And again in February, in the parking garage of a Las Vegas casino. And again in March, at home in Los Angeles.

"By the fourth time, I was numb," said Trinh, who works for a hospitality technology company and lives in Eagle Rock. "I had no emotions left. I was like, 'Well, this is just how life is now. I guess my catalytic converter is going to be stolen every month.'"

Fifteen years ago, the Toyota Prius was so popular in California that buyers faced waits of up to seven months to purchase one. Now the aging hybrid is in demand again for an entirely different reason.

The second-generation Prius, sold from 2004 to 2009, has become a prime target for catalytic converter theft in California. The car's shoebox-sized anti-pollution device contains trace amounts of precious metals and can fetch several hundred dollars from scrap yards and recyclers.

Converter thefts have surged across the U.S. in the last two years. One analysis of repairs at 60,000 auto shops found that Ford F-150 trucks and Honda Accords were the most frequent theft targets nationally, while the Prius was 10th.

But in the West, the analysis found, the Prius took the No. 1 spot.

Catalytic converters in hybrids have a higher concentration of precious metals compared to cars that run solely on gas. The 2007 Prius' converter has a resale value of more than $1,000, while a converter in the 2007 F-150 fetches about $150. Newer Priuses are targets for thieves too, but they use a different converter that sells for less.

Insurance companies have reported a tsunami of theft claims filed by owners of older Priuses in California, as well as in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and New Mexico.

The frequency of partial theft reports — a category that includes the theft of catalytic converters — spiked by nearly 850% in California from 2019 to 2021, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit funded by the insurance industry. About a quarter of the country's insured Priuses sold between 2004 and 2009 are in California.

"As soon as you see one, you know it's a Prius," said Kay Wakeman, the institute's director of insurance outreach. She said some hybrid cars, including the Toyota RAV-4, also have lookalike gas-only models, and thieves usually can't tell the difference until they're underneath the car with a handheld saw.

The theft wave has left Prius owners feeling frustrated, vulnerable and broke.

Those who had planned to keep driving their old, reliable cars now face an unappealing calculus: Spend more money on a new car, or keep the old one and risk a catalytic converter theft, which can cost more than $3,000 to repair.

Some Prius owners are turning to guerilla solutions: painting their catalytic converters bright orange or pink, etching the devices with a vehicle identification number and bolting on protective plates and cages.

Police departments in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Las Vegas didn't find Trinh's catalytic converter, she said — not that she expected them to. She eventually wrote to a YouTube prankster who targets scammers, asking him to rig up a bait car that could scare off thieves. (He hasn't yet.)

"I want some kind of justice," Trinh said. "Even if it's a glitter bomb."

Steven Simon, posing in a pink shirt, leans against the hood of a gray Prius.
Echo Park resident Steven Simon had his catalytic converter stolen from his 2008 Prius in December 2020 and again in March of this year. When it was found a month later, the interior was fully intact but no catalytic converter. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The thefts unfold on street corners, in residential driveways and secured parking garages. Many thefts happen overnight, but drivers have seen legs sticking out from under their cars and heard the whirr of a handheld saw in the middle of the afternoon.

No Prius is immune. In 2019, thieves stole the catalytic converter from an older blue Prius parked in a downtown Sacramento garage. The car was assigned to Mary Nichols, who was then California's top air pollution regulator.

Nichols chaired the Air Resources Board in the 1970s when the Golden State began requiring a new form of catalytic converter that eventually became the national standard.

Nichols didn't drive the car; staff members did, according to Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young. But, he said, it is ironic that thieves targeted the vehicle assigned to "the very woman who did more than anyone to pioneer clean air technologies on cars."

Prius drivers grinding through the costly, time-consuming chore of replacing a catalytic converter say they're frustrated that little has been done to stem the problem. Police don't treat the issue as a priority, they said, and laws aimed at hobbling the black market trade in the devices haven't helped.

"The Prius Owners' Union needs to form and storm Sacramento," Prius owner Michael Graff-Weisner, said half-jokingly. "We need our voices to be heard."

Graff-Weisner's gray 2006 Prius, which he parks on the street in West L.A., has had its converter stolen three times since 2019.

The mid-2000s Prius felt a bit like the Tesla does in 2022, Graff-Weisner said: a popular car with a waiting list and the promise of carpool lane access. There is some irony, he said, that "it's now a very hot commodity for a different reason."

Roger Jao's converter was stolen on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving from the street outside his home in Baldwin Hills.

His security camera captured the theft from his 2008 Prius, which took less than two minutes. Jao shared the footage with police, but they never responded, he said.

Jao's insurance company covered the cost of the repair, minus his $1,000 deductible. He also spent about $500 to bolt a plate onto the converter, which was not covered by insurance.

"I'm not the guy who pulls up to valet in a really flashy sports car," said Jao, who works in concert promotion. "I purposefully drive a car that's kind of frumpy. It's very strange to think, like, 'Oh my God, I'm a target now.'"

Catalytic converter theft can be lucrative for thieves, but it's not without its risks. One man trying to steal a converter from a Prius in Anaheim was crushed to death when the jack holding up the car failed, police said.

Thefts can also be risky for car owners who try to prevent them. This year alone, at least two people have been shot when confronting converter thieves in Long Beach and North Hollywood.

Last month, police in the Portland, Ore., area said they busted a crime ring that had trafficked more than 44,000 stolen catalytic converters over 18 months. The converters, which had an estimated street value of more than $22 million, had been stolen from six states, including California and New York, police said.

The "industrywide challenge" of catalytic converter theft was a topic of conversation when Toyota officials met with Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón

last fall, company spokesman Nathan Kokes said in an email.

Toyota supports "legislative solutions aimed at eliminating a readily accessible market for these stolen parts," Kokes said. "If there isn't a market for these parts, it eliminates the financial gain for thieves."

Kokes did not respond to a question about whether Toyota will consider a recall for the second-generation Prius, which some owners have lobbied for. But, he said, the "unfortunate situation is one we take very seriously."

Police suggest parking Priuses and other vulnerable cars in a locked garage or in a well-lit area. In Southern California, where street parking can be a blood sport, that's often impossible. Other security measures don't always help, either.

Darren Dela Cruz leans on the hood of his 2008 Prius, whose catalytic converter has been stolen twice.
Darren Dela Cruz of Costa Mesa had his catalytic converter stolen twice in less than a year from his 2008 Prius. (Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Last fall, Darren Dela Cruz, 38, heard a loud sawing noise at about 3 a.m. He learned hours later that thieves had stolen the converter from his gold 2008 Prius in Costa Mesa. He had been parked next to a newer Prius, which the thieves did not touch.

Dela Cruz had his car fixed and installed motion-sensor security cameras in his driveway, which captured the second theft five months later.

"The camera doesn't seem to do much," said Dela Cruz. "I caught them, I have good video of what was going on, I sent it in, and it didn't help at all. It seems to happen so much that the police don't really prioritize doing much about it."

The two repairs set Dela Cruz back $1,375, including two $500 deductible payments and the cost to bolt a shield on to his converter. If his car is targeted a third time, he said, he'll sell it, but he would rather not have to.

When Steven Simon, 40, had his converter stolen from his 2008 Prius at Christmas in 2020, he shelled out $1,000 for his deductible and $500 to bolt on a shield and went back to parking on the street in Echo Park. Then, in March of this year, his whole car was stolen.

The Los Angeles Police Department found the Prius a month later with the shield ripped off and the catalytic converter gone. Everything else, Simon said, "was in the exact state of chaos it had been left in," including a $20 bill tucked into the console.

Simon had the car fixed again, but now, he said, he worries the car is "like a sitting duck."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.