Catalytic converter thefts surge around campus

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One Oxy student’s catalytic converter was stolen on this street, only a few blocks south of York Blvd. Thursday, February 25, 2021. Robert Sturdevant/The Occidental.

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Sam Sachs (senior) said he awoke to the loud buzzing of a saw cutting through metal at 5 a.m. on Feb. 18. He looked outside his window facing Alumni Avenue and saw a man with a flashlight roll out from under a Honda Accord, pass something to another man in an SUV and speed off together. Sachs said the whole process took less than 15 seconds.

“I was half asleep, so I was kind of shocked at what I was witnessing,” Sachs said.

Later that same day, Caroline Kearney (junior) went to turn on her car, the Honda Accord parked on Alumni Avenue. Immediately, she knew something was wrong.

“It was making this horrible loud banging sound,” Kearney said. “It sounded like I was revving the engine when I started my car, but way louder. I could just tell something was really not okay.”

Later, Kearney learned that a thief had stolen her catalytic converter, an emissions control device that filters pollutants from a car’s engine. Car owners are required to have a catalytic converter in order to pass LA County’s emissions tests. These thefts follow an upsurge in catalytic converter thefts across the country in the past five years, and in LA and Eagle Rock in the past year. These surges are largely due to rising values of precious metals found in the converters, including palladium, which is currently valued at approximately $2,500 an ounce, and rhodium, valued at $21,900 an ounce.

Director of Campus Safety Rick Tanksley announced in an email Feb. 11 that students who live in close proximity to campus and have obtained a parking permit can park their vehicles overnight on campus. According to Tanksley, no catalytic converter thefts have occurred on college property.

Tanksley said he encourages students to park by the solar panels on upper campus where there is a well-lit parking lot, since campus safety conducts regular patrols of campus to monitor for theft or suspicious activity.

On North Avenue 49, Charlotte Harrington (sophomore) turned on her vehicle’s engine Feb. 17 and heard a loud roaring sound — a mechanic later confirmed that her catalytic converter had been stolen. Both Harrington and Kearney said this was their first encounter with property theft.

“I think it just kind of unnerved me,” Harrington said. “It was kind of stressful once I figured out that it has been stolen and then had to call a bunch of different people and figure out insurance.”

Kearney said she emailed Campus Safety to inform them of the theft and to determine what next steps she should take, but instead was forwarded the same student-wide email sent from Feb. 11. Kearney said she was overwhelmed by the theft in the midst of her midterms, and felt dissatisfied with the college’s response to her email — Campus Safety had been her first call, but she said she had to look elsewhere for support, resources and information on preventative measures.

According to Tanksley, expert thieves often remove the converters with angle grinders and sawzalls, which may cause additional damage to the car. Kearney said she received an invoice from her mechanic for $4,500 to replace the converter and repair damages incurred from the converter extraction process.

Kearney said she fears the possibility that once her car is fixed, another theft will result in similar outcomes, and may even total her car. Harrington even said she fears that her temporary rental car’s converter will also be stolen.

“I felt a bit unsafe parking the rental car outside,” Harrington said. “I kept checking on it, just to make sure that it was all there.”

There are some preventative measures that can be taken to protect converters, including attaching a security device to the converter, engraving a vehicle identification number on the converter or installing a cage or barrier that covers the converter. However, Tanksley said it can be difficult to prevent these thefts, especially when they occur in the early hours of the morning. Tanksley advises students to be cautious if they see thieves targeting their cars.

“Always keep your wits about yourself, have your phone at the ready, in case you need assistance,” Tanksley said.