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Catalytic Converter Theft Puts Focus on Popular Target

Bob Kronovetrealty
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By Jorge Casuso

June 20, 2022 -- A Los Angeles man on probation is the latest suspect arrested in what has likely become Santa Monica's most popular crime target -- the often ignored but highly valued catalytic converter.

Francis Alvarado, 41, who was on probation for Burglary and Grand Theft Auto, was arrested after a caller reported seeing a man underneath a vehicle early Friday morning, police said.

The caller reported hearing noises at around 3:30 a.m. coming from the unsecured underground garage in an apartment complex on the 900 block of 4th Street in the Wilmont neighborhood.

"Officers quickly arrived on scene and detained the suspect and female passenger, who were preparing to leave in a vehicle," said Lt. Rudy Flores, the Police Department spokesman.

During a search of the suspect's vehicle, officers found a catalytic converter that did not belong to the vehicle the suspect had been under and "tools consistent with catalytic converter theft," Flores said.

They also found more than 15 grams of methamphetamine, he said. Alvarado was taken to Santa Monica jail and booked for possession of stolen property and methamphetamine.

Auto parts theft -- largely driven by the thefts of catalytic converters -- have seen "a significant increase over the past five years" in Santa Monica, Police officials said.

In 2020, the theft of catalytic converters accounted for a dramatic spike in auto parts theft, with 57 percent of the 402 reported thefts involving catalytic converters ("Crime Dips During COVID-19 Shutdown, Calls for Service Plummet," February 19, 2021).

In January 2021, during the height of the coronavirus lockdown, there were 69 reports of catalytic converter theft, Flores said.

In April and May of this year, thefts have increased over the same period last year, with 20 thefts reported in each of the two months.

The increase reflects a nationwide trend, which saw the theft of the devices that control exhaust emissions skyrocket from about 1,300 in 2018 to more than 52,000 in 2021, according to a report in Carfax based on data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

"Targeted vehicles range from small cars such as the Chrysler 200, to SUVs such as the Honda CR-V or Chevy Equinox, all the way up to full-size pickup trucks from Ford and GM," wrote the popular auto website.

According to Carfax, the Toyota Prius was the most targeted car in the western states for catalytic converter theft, including California.

While the Prius remains the most targeted vehicle in Santa Monica, Flores said, Hondas, as well as Toyota and Ford trucks, have seen an increase in catalytic converter thefts.

The devices -- which convert toxic gases into less toxic pollutants -- are valuable because they contain precious metals, including platinum, that are highly sought by scrap metal dealers.

According to experts, thieves can make anywhere from $25 to $300 for a standard catalytic converter, while those from hybrid vehicles can sell for as much as $1,400, since more precious metals are needed.

Santa Monica police have been warning of catalytic converter thefts for years ("Santa Monica Police Warn of Smog Device Thefts," March 2, 2015).

The warnings became more frequent since 2015, when thieves began targeting vehicles across the Los Angeles area, including Santa Monica, which saw a spike in the theft of the devices.

In 2018, police renewed their warnings after a rash of thefts that saw at least seven catalytic converters stolen within a few weeks ("Santa Monica Sees Rash of Thefts of Catalytic Converters from Cars," May 16, 2018).

Such thefts have continued to regularly make local headlines.

In April, four suspects were arrested after police found a stolen catalytic converter and a cache of burglary tools in their vehicle ("Four Suspects Arrested in Catalytic Converter Theft," April 15, 2022).

Using a battery operated power saw, a thief can cut out a catalytic converter from under a vehicle within minutes, police officials said.

On Thursday, June 30, the Santa Monica Police Department will hold a free "Etch & Catch" event from 7 to 9 p.m. at Firestone Complete Auto Care, 1817 Lincoln Boulevard.

Those who attend will have their vehicle's license plate number etched on the catalytic converter's heat shield at no cost. The program is open to those who live or work in Santa Monica but a reservation is required. For more information call 310-458-8474.

Anyone with any additional information about Friday's incident should call the Detective Bureau at 310-458-8451 or the Watch Commander (24 hours) at 310-458-8426.

This article was updated at 11 p.m. Tuesday.

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