I became a statistic that sits in the growing number of catalytic converter thefts recorded in San Francisco. It also destroyed my mental health.
I opened the door to my car with a familiar chime ringing in the background. The Diet Coke, nearly empty and blanketed in dew, sits in the cup holder; I’m aware that I’ll have to wipe up the puddle of condensation that will puddle on the bottom.
Yes, reader: Someone stole my catalytic converter.
It's obscenely expensive to replace… so any and all help would be greatly appreciated. ✨ https://t.co/zasp95U8MO
— Matt Charnock (@M_J_Charnock) February 20, 2023
Because I have a Prius Plug-in — an automobile that because of the current used car market *still* appraises higher than when I bought it back in 2017 — it started in electric-only mode.
I put the car in reverse. I hear metal scrapping on the concrete; my mind first veers toward optimism, thinking that it might be an aluminum can wedged underneath the vehicle. I lay horizontal on the pavement; my brightness quickly turns into dismay seeing part of the exhaust system gone, just below the manifolds.
Nevertheless, I still needed to move my car to avoid a street cleaning citation. Because of fun fact: A mechanical issue like mine wouldn’t be merit to successfully protest the citation. With the sound of a lion’s roar emanating from below my engine compartment, I engage the engine to confirm the catalytic converter was, indeed, stolen and drive the car three blocks to a new one, giving myself more time to figure shit out.
“I would like to report a catalytic converter theft,” I said to the non-emergency call agent at (415) 553-0123. I knew this was futile. There was no way SF police were going to track down my catalytic converters.
There’s nothing physically differentiating mine from other hundreds of catalytic converters that will inevitably be stolen this calendar year.
417 catalytic converters thefts were reported in San Francisco last year, which is 40 more than in 2021. The number for 2023 is only likely to rise; catalytic converter theft has increased 600% in many urban areas since 2019. The rise isn’t based on a singular issue, but more so due to a perfect storm of variables, among them being growing rates of unemployment and the skyrocketing prices for certain metals.
Catalytic converters of all sorts contain precious metals that are adept at altering greenhouse emissions — hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, etc. — to less dangerous byproducts, like carbon dioxide and water vapors. Those units sold in CARB states, which includes California, are more complex and contain even more of these precious metals; catalytic converters are primarily made using platinum, palladium, and rhodium — all of which have seen substantial price hikes since 2019.
EPA-regulated converters can commonly be found below $800 for my Prius model. But a CARB-approved catalytic converter easily fetches thrice this amount. It was a reality I quickly found out while simultaneously Googling while on the phone with said call center agent, filing a police report to document the crime.
“Thank you for reporting this, and we’ll keep you updated with any new knowledge in this case,” they replied, well-meaning and consoling, but the reality was heavy in their voice. We both know it wouldn’t be recovered. It was an unspoken truth, shared through tonalities
My voice is heavy and somber: “I appreciate it, thank you.” I end the call, only to start ringing a half dozen muffler shops around the SF Bay Area to hear my options. The responses were so acclimated, it was jarring.
“Yours would be the seventh Prius we’ve had in this month alone needing a new catalytic converter,” a shop employee* at Golden Auto Muffler & Brake Center tells me. “Thieves target hybrid models, especially those like yours that are plug-in hybrids because the catalytic converters on these cars are less stressed than on traditional cars.”
They were absolutely right. According to CARFAX, the most likely make and model to have its catalytic converter robbed along the West Coast is… yep, you guessed it, the Toyota Prius. All four generations of the car, which collectively span over 20 years of automotive manufacturing, are vulnerable to catalytic converter theft.
Nowadays, it’s quite common to have after-market catalytic guards, commonly known as “cat cages,” fixed to vehicles, especially hybrids. Being that some thieves can steal a catalytic converter in as little as 90 seconds (assuming the car is optimally placed and an electric sawzall is used), traditional anti-theft tools like alarm systems are almost completely ineffective. By the time anyone could run out and see what the hoopla is about, there’s a solid chance the said thieves are already driving away with a $3,000 car part.
These cat cages are meant to deter theft by making it cumbersome to illegally remove a catalytic converter. Instead of taking, say, two minutes to remove an unprotected catalytic converter, a would-be-thief would need to take substantially more time to remove the car part — if they could, at all. (Many of these now require brand-specific hex tools in order to remove.)
It’s a $300 piece of mind that I’m happy to pay for.
An appointment to replace the catalytic converters is secured for this upcoming Friday; suffice it to say I’m also having a cat guard installed in tandem. I can’t, however, shake off the mounding anxiety that now wraps my mind.
What if my car’s targeted again — and they manage to remove the cat guard? Maybe they’ll just smash my windows in frustration, only to find spearmint gum in the glovebox? Perhaps my car could just low-key not be there one morning?
These are all hypotheticals that weigh an already anxiety-ridden mind. In some ways, it’s even worse than the nauseating repair bill, itself.
I finally let myself break down moving the car again in electric-only mode.
I find parking; I pull the e-brake.
I cry; I see the empty Diet Coke can in the cupholders; I use a microfiber towel stored in my hatch to dry my eyes and sponge up whatever puddle of condensation is left in the cupholder.
Practicing gratitude in these situations is the only remedy to sinking further down a hole of self-rumination and demoralizing pontifications.
I’m grateful that I have rent control, I’m grateful that I have a bicycle, I’m grateful for the community that surrounds me here, I’m grateful to have a filled fridge, I’m grateful to live in San Francisco (even if it breaks my heart, sometimes).
Life will continue. Anxieties will wash and fade in time. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter will release the visuals for “Renaissance,” eventually.
All will be well, soon enough.
(Until then, I did set up a donation campaign to help bring some breathing room to this whole situation; if you’re in a financial place to do so, any and all help in covering this unexpected cost would be greatly appreciated.)