It’s almost become a cliche: Whenever an Ed’s Tow and Cradle tow truck pulls into a Toyota dealership or a body shop with a Prius aboard, the query posed to the driver is nearly always the same.

“Is that a cat?” 

“Cat,” as in a service job involving the replacement of a stolen catalytic converter, the device that reduces a vehicle’s toxic emissions. The answer is usually “yes.” And thanks to a rise in such thefts among Priuses, ordering replacement parts is likely going to take some time, said Peter Salcido, service manager of Felix’s Auto Service, which owns the Mountain View tow company.

“Toyota is just overloaded with orders,” he said. “We’ve got local shops that they’re waiting on weeks, and ourselves – we’re waiting on weeks to get parts. That’s a big burden on the customer.”

Mountain View Police Department spokeswoman Katie Nelson confirmed there’s been a recent uptick in catalytic converter thefts across the city. Since mid-March, her agency has fielded reports of 29 such incidents, nearly all involving Priuses.

“We have all done a great job of staying home to save lives during this COVID-19 pandemic,” she wrote in a press release issued Wednesday (May 27). “Unfortunately, some have taken advantage of these stay-at-home orders to victimize others by stealing their catalytic converters.”

‘Cat’ burglars

Cats can fetch as much as $500 from recycling companies because they’re made with precious metals such as palladium, platinum and rhodium. And the electric motors on hybrid vehicles like Priuses leave less work for the devices to perform, so the metals inside them are less likely to corrode. Priuses manufactured before 2011 are common targets because their converters are situated under the cars in a way that makes them easier to remove; thieves who go after those on newer models risk burning themselves with scorching-hot liquid from coolant tubes that obscure access.

While the tube-cutting tool typically used for removing catalytic converters is silent in execution, the aftereffect is unmistakable: a horrendous roar as the engine is turned. That noise was the first tip-off alerting Shauna Heller, a temporary Mountain View resident from Los Angeles, that something was amiss with her 2008 Prius on May 18. The second was the two bolts the thief left behind. She took a photo of the bolts and texted it to her mechanic in Santa Clara.

“I said, ‘Something’s wrong with my car. It’s making a horrible noise and these two bolts were on the carport floor. Do you have any idea of what might be wrong?’” she recalled. “And he immediately called me back and said, ‘Someone’s stolen your catalytic converter.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what that means.’”

Heller soon learned it means paying the $500 deductible on her comprehensive car insurance before her insurance company would shell out an additional $2,500 to render her vehicle drivable again. The damage could have been worse; sometimes replacing stolen parts costs more than the value of an older-model vehicle, so the car is considered totaled, Salcido said.

There are special straps, plates, shields and clamps vehicle owners can have installed to deter this kind of theft, but no guard is guaranteed. The police department encourages residents to park in well-lit areas, preferably inside a garage if one is available, and to research whether their vehicles feature an alarm that can be set to activate upon vibration detection. Consider contacting an auto repair shop offering vehicle identification number engraving on converters, which makes them traceable.

By reaching out to other residents of her Sylvan Park neighborhood, Heller’s learned her current predicament isn’t unique. She said she hopes the police department will consider increasing patrols in her area to discourage thieves.

“I respect that there’s a lot going on with public safety in terms of the virus and things like that, but there’s still underlying civic concerns that would be great if the police were addressing,” Heller said. “But again, I haven’t contacted them. I haven’t heard their side of things. A lot of it’s subjective because right now I’m just frustrated.”