Drivers have VINs etched on catalytic converters in theft response

Hundreds of motorists had their cars’ vehicle identification numbers etched onto their catalytic converters by Los Angeles police Wednesday, waiting in a line that stretched around Silver Lake Reservoir.

The free service was meant to help track the car parts if they’re taken by thieves.

Catalytic converter thefts have jumped since the start of the pandemic, police say. The parts contain precious metals such as palladium, platinum and rhodium, and they can be quickly cut off using power tools or simple handsaws, making them highly sought by thieves, according to the LAPD.

“A well-versed crew of thieves can take the part off a car in under 60 seconds,” Capt. Gary Walters said at the makeshift etching station on Silver Lake Boulevard.

Walters said the exhaust control devices, which hang underneath most vehicles, can be recycled for up to $300.

At the event, hosted by the LAPD’s Northeast Division and sponsored by a grant from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, drivers had their cars lifted slightly off the ground so a mechanic could etch their VIN numbers with a power tool.

Det. David Williams takes information from Phil Curls, reflected in his vehicle’s side mirror, for the catalytic converter etching Wednesday.

(Irfan Khan / Fontana News Room)

Tina Daggett, who waited in line for over an hour, said her old truck’s catalytic converter was stolen in Vernon and cost about $300 to be replaced.

“It really made me wonder about that type of theft,” said Daggett, who was driving a compact Toyota. “Now I’m just concerned about this one part on my car.”

Phil Curls said he was stuck driving a rental car for two months because the dealership told him there was a backlog to get a replacement part after his Toyota Prius’ catalytic converter was sawed off. When he started his car, he said, it sounded like a souped-up race car without the part on its exhaust system.

“And six months later, they got me again,” Curls said.

Hybrid Priuses are a common target because they emit fewer toxins, so their catalytic converters are cleaner and more valuable to thieves.

Police said the thefts can happen in broad daylight and outside people’s homes and workplaces. Thieves tend to steal the car parts in batches if they are part of an organized crew, Walters said, and could face grand theft auto charges by doing so. Recycling centers that accept stolen parts could be charged as well, he said.

The etched-on VINs would help law enforcement build a case against a thief and could deter recycling business from processing the stolen parts or looking the other way, Walters said.

“We want to make it as difficult and time-consuming as possible,” he said.

A line of vehicles next to orange traffic cones

A line of vehicles stretches down Silver Lake Boulevard for the LAPD event.

(Irfan Khan / Fontana News Room)

Det. Mike Ventura said he has seen just under 200 reported stolen catalytic converter cases this year in the Northeast Division, which includes Atwater Village, Silver Lake, Highland Park and Eagle Rock.

“This is the new cocaine,” Ventura said, pointing to a picture of a sawed-off car part. “Before, it was guns and drugs.”

The Northeast Division plans to hold an etching event once a month and expects the Eagle Rock neighborhood will be next.

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