Milpitas Launches Catalytic Conversion Program to Protect Residents

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With the theft of catalytic converters at an all-time high, many cities have sought new solutions to protect their residents.

At their March 15 meeting, the Milpitas City Council voted in favor of $200,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding for a catalytic converter program that would improve public safety while supporting small local car companies.

A catalytic converter is a device, located under the car, which reduces the amount of pollution produced by a vehicle. The three precious metals found in catalytic converters make them a hot property, which is why the theft of this part of the exhaust system has increased year on year. Platinum, palladium, and rhodium are expensive, and thieves can sell them to recyclers for $50 to $250.

Last fall, before the council even discussed the catalytic converter program, the Milpitas Police Department (MPD) began partnering with local auto dealerships to offer free etchings on the coveted part.

“We have hosted four events since our partnerships began in October 2021, and a total of 93 catalytic converters have been burned,” shared MPD Deputy Chief Constable John Torrez.

While the MPD understands that the etching itself does not prevent catalytic converter thefts, it does help provide them with an “investigative lead” when they arrest someone in a vehicle with a freshly cut catalytic converter.

If an officer finds an engraved converter, they can use the license plate to find the registered owner of the car and determine whether or not it was stolen. This may result in arrest and return of the converter to its rightful owner.

“We hope the engraving can be a deterrent to those looking to steal them and to stores and recyclers who buy them without question,” Torrez said.

Recently, however, Council Member Evelyn Chua, who was responsible for asking the Council to invest funds in a catalytic converter program, discovered that etching might not always be the best solution.

In an interview with The Beat, Chua explained how earlier this year she started visiting auto shops to ask questions and learn more about catalytic converters.

“My original idea for the program was to etch the license plate into the catalytic converter,” said board member Chua. “But a few car shop owners said that even if we etch it, it only takes a few seconds to scrape it off.”

Last July, Vice Mayor Carmen Montano discovered that the catalytic converter in her motorhome had been sawn off – just outside her home in Milpitas. It took him almost a whole year to get a new one. The cost of a new converter was high, and Montano’s insurance company was initially unwilling to pay. Last month, after many back and forths, the insurance company finally paid for a replacement. It took Vice Mayor Montano to write a local senator to compel the insurance company to comply.

“I have friends who had their converters stolen as well, and they said the converter actually costs more than the car itself,” Montano told The Beat.

Bobby Nguyen, Service Manager at Envision Honda of Milpitas, told The Beat how recently a customer had his catalytic converter stolen. They brought their car and Envision Honda was able to replace the converter. However, a few weeks later, the customer’s converter was stolen again.

“We get a lot of calls at the dealership about stolen catalytic converters,” Nguyen said. “The majority of parts are out of stock and repairs are very expensive.”

Nguyen said replacing a catalytic converter with factory parts at Envision Honda can cost between $5,000 and $6,000. For some customers who cannot afford the cost, he often suggests that they purchase a California-approved “aftermarket” catalytic converter, which consists of aftermarket parts.

“You can go to a muffler shop to do this, and it usually costs between $650 and $800,” Nguyen said.

After spending time researching and interviewing auto shop owners, council member Chua discovered that the best way to protect a catalytic converter is to cage it. Last month, she took her own 2007 Honda to ABW Auto Repair (65 Minnis Circle), so they could cage her catalytic converter. It cost him a total of $445.57.

The idea is that by caging the converter with metal wiring, it will be harder – and much longer – for thieves to gain access. A caged converter offers too much hassle, making it more likely that thieves will give up trying to steal it.

Currently, the City of Milpitas is working on all the details of its catalytic converter program and how best to begin implementing it. Their intention is to make it accessible to all residents of Milpitas. The City will also engage in outreach activities to connect with low-income residents for whom the program could be of particular benefit.

While those details are being ironed out, Chua is looking for ways to secure more funding at the federal, state or county level. She has already started the process of reaching out to various representatives.

“We really want to protect our residents,” Chua said.

A few things to consider to protect your car’s catalytic converter: be aware of where you park; have your converter engraved; and, if you can afford it, go the extra mile to cage the converter.

The Beat will share more details when the city’s catalytic converter program officially launches.

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