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They Came, They Saw, They Stole Our Catalytic Converters

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My girlfriend didn’t want me to write this article about the plague of thieves and criminals stealing catalytic converters from unsuspecting drivers around the Bay Area, which have boomed from an average of 108 per month in 2018 to 2,347 December 2020, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Always one to spin herself into a whirlwind of anxiety and imagined catastrophes, she insisted if I wrote about our experience, whoever the villain was would come back to hurt us. As you, dear reader, can see, I did not heed her warning. I write what I want to write about, repercussions be damned.

*

That morning was like any other morning: check Twitter and the ongoing volatility around the world; shake up my Athletic Greens to ward off any variants that may be sneaking their way into my already compromised system; do a couple of push-ups and minutes of planks to make sure my muscles still work, and then, finally get to my freelance writing work. If you want to read a recent piece about that world of ghostwriting, content creation, and blog posting, check it out.

Then, as I settled into my C-grade office chair, opened the blinds letting in the terrifying, jack-o-lantern glow of the unrelenting fires, I got the call from my girlfriend, who had just left for work.

“Something’s wrong with the car,” she explained. “It sounds like a lawnmower.”

I inhaled through my nose, trying to bring more oxygen to my broiling cells, tissues, and organs then tried to think of a plausible reason. Spark plugs? Maybe. Did the engine take a shit? Sure, the car was old. Maybe she had already started the car and was merely grinding the ignition? Possible but, never in a million years did I think the catalytic converter would have been cut clean from our car.

“Holy hell,” I shouted over the mechanical gurgling, “turn it off! Turn it off!” Now outside with my girlfriend growing impatient as she got to work, I opened the hood. “Everything looks normal to me.”

“Hey there!” a woman shouted from behind us. A neighbor, one we’d never met but still lovely, shuffled down her stairs. “Are you the owner’s?”

My girlfriend and I nodded.

“Hi,” the woman said, a stroke of sadness in her voice. “Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news.” She playfully scoffed and made a funny frowny face. “But my husband and I are positive you got your catalytic converter stolen last night.”

Neither of us knew what the hell that was, what it did, or why it was valuable. Be honest, do you?

“Here,” the woman continued helpfully. “These are the photos caught on our NEST security system.”

Another of the neighbor’s photos.

Sure enough, there was a shadowy individual with his truck, bright white lights painted on our compact sport utility vehicle, slithering around on the ground. I’ll be honest, the whole scene was surreal to watch. One, our car wasn’t that nice, so the effort the felonious night stalker was going through felt absurd. Two, no one seemed to give a shit about what was happening, which wasn’t that crazy considering it was off Haight on Scott at midnight. Three, and this was the most laughable bit, we would later learn the thief stole the catalytic converter, two oxygen sensors, the heat shield, and hacked the exhaust pipe clear entirely off with their power saw in under a few minutes.

Another of the neighbor’s photos.

The guy was like the worst version of a one-person Nascar pit crew.

The lady clicked off her phone. “I’ve read they steal them for their precious metal, but I know that’s not what you want to hear.”

It wasn’t, but we appreciated her kindness as we called a tow truck.

So, what is this thing causing an everyday joe schmo like me so many problems? What is this mechanism within my car that, before this altercation, I was clueless about? What is this piece of metal and precious metals that is forcing thousands of people to go out of their already busy workday, one overwhelmed by drought, forest fires, democratic tomfoolery, and, oh yeah, the ongoing pandemic to spend thousands of dollars to get fixed?

The device is called a catalytic converter. Looking over images online, the piece looks like a small muffler connected to the exhaust system. It’s designed to convert the engine’s environmentally hazardous exhaust into less harmful gasses. Sounds simple enough and overall positive. The converter does this by using platinum, palladium, or rhodium; those “precious metals” our kind neighbor spoke about. Unfortunately for American drivers all across the country, the values of these precious metals have exploded, and, for every explosion, there are casualties. As of December 2020, rhodium was valued at $14,500 per ounce, palladium at $2,336 per ounce, and platinum going for $1,061 per ounce. Typically, recycle centers will pay $50 to $250 per catalytic converter, though police urge them to purchase them from reputable repair shops and dealerships, not the general public.

Apparently this is a catalytic convertor. This pic comes from Wikicommons

After a lot of constructive talk with the agents at Geico (their service was terrific and extremely helpful with the entire process), we got our car towed to The Smog Shop, a highly rated, Family-owned, and operated ASE certified mechanic in business since 1990. The price was reasonable, and the turnaround was less than a couple of hours. That was a selling point for my girlfriend and me, considering she used the car six days a week. The thieves don’t seem to understand or sympathize that mostly everyone they are stealing from has jobs, and their selfish, criminal, cowardly ways are putting out people like my girlfriend, a hardworking librarian, making their life that much harder.

“You wouldn’t believe how many cars I get in a day,” the head mechanic told me. “Would blow your mind…still blows my mind!”

Not wanting to know on account of being exhausted with the entire subject but not wanting to be rude, I asked how many.

“At least six to seven to eight a day,” he replied. Just as he said this, two demonically possessed cars rolled in. “See what I’m saying?”

“Good gravy,” I sighed. 

As I signed the paperwork and receipts, the mechanic went on to tell me most recycling centers in the area won’t buy catalytic converters from the public for fear of getting in trouble if there was ever an audit. This results in the thieves finding places that will do it under the table or sending them overseas. Currently, nearly 50 bills have been introduced in about two dozen states like Oregon and others all aimed at deterring thieves from making off with this critical part of its exhaust system. Strange but not that strange, Republican Senate Leadership voted to block Catalytic Converter legislation recently. 

Senator John Marty (DFL-Roseville) stated, “Again, the Senate majority refused to consider the proposal, saying that it wasn’t ‘germane’ to the legislation, preventing any discussion or vote on the proposal. The Republican Senate leadership has given no path for consideration.”

As a parting gift of wisdom, the mechanic informed me not to approach someone if I thought they were stealing a converter from us again. 

“They probably won’t because what we put in your car was off-market, but in any case, just don’t. They’re usually armed and always dangerous.”

The most recent event was a man yelling at two thieves and getting shot at in San Francisco. Luckily, the man was OK. There have also been shootings revolving around catalytic converters in Rohnert Park and Fremont. So, if you happen upon someone tinkering with your car, police and mechanics suggest contacting law enforcement and keeping your distance. 

Stay safe out there.

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Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran

Mitchell Duran is a freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. Winner of the ClarkGrossman and Wilner Award in Short Fiction, his work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, The Millions, Music in SF and more. He survives in San Francisco.

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