Converting Toyota parts into cash

Thieves are focusing on 1990s Toyota FJ Cruiser, Tundras and Tacomas because the catalytic converters are easy to remove, according to police.
Lt. Bill Gaudinier, an investigator with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, said he has seen a rise in catalytic converter thefts from Toyota trucks in the past six months.
"We're getting hit all over," he said. "It's an epidemic right now."
The catalytic converters contain platinum-group metals that are used in the manufacturing of electronics and in jewelry, glass, and medical and dental equipment, said sheriff's Detective Jim Messina.
"We noticed it about six months ago," Messina said. "But it's happening statewide."
Hayward police spokesman Reid Lindblom said his agency is aware of the trend and, as recently as December, arrested a man after he was caught stealing a Honda's catalytic converter.
When police searched the suspect's car, Lindblom said, they found nine stolen catalytic converters. The suspect admitted to using a gas torch to help dislodge the devices. Lindblom said detectives have not kept running statistics on the number of catalytic converters reported stolen but are aware it is a growing crime trend.
In recent months, Messina said, the sheriff's office has investigated a dozen such thefts in Castro Valley, another 12 in unincorporated Hayward and six in Livermore and Pleasanton.
Car thieves are targeting the line of Toyotas because the converters -- an exhaust emissions device that removes pollutants from car exhaust -- are held on by just four bolts.
In contrast, the bolts attaching catalytic converters to other vehicles are welded and are more difficult to remove.
Messina said it takes less than two minutes to remove the system from Toyota trucks. Once removed, he said, the trucks rumble and sound like a drag racer.
"It's easy to take them off," he said. "They usually do it in people's driveways or right out in front of their homes."
A muffler shop in Hayward said replacing a catalytic converter in a Toyota Supra can cost up to $1,300.
Tracking the stolen converters is virtually impossible, Messina said.
"They're hard to trace," Messina said. "They're essentially all the same. There are no serial numbers that can be used to identify them. Once they're thrown in the scrap yard and mixed in with everybody else's scrap, it makes it hard to find out who is doing this."
Messina said he has found that many of the stolen catalytic converters are being shipped to recycling companies in Poland, Canada, China and Latvia, where they undergo a carbo-chlorination process that extracts the platinum-group metals.
The trend is not likely to go away anytime soon. On Friday, the price of platinum closed at $1,096 per Troy ounce on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up $16 in one day.
"If you get on the Internet, you can find hundreds of recyclers in a hundred different cities buying the converters for their precious metals," Messina said. "They have to send them to a plant that has the chemical process necessary to extract the metals."
As a preventative measure, Messina recommended that owners of Toyota-brand trucks go to a muffler shop and have the four bolts that secure the catalytic converter tac-welded.
The cost of the job is about $40.
But even that, said Jonathan, an employee of a muffler shop in Hayward, may not stop the thieves.
"You can't really do anything to prevent it," said Jonathan, who declined to give his last name. "If they really want it, they can just use a hacksaw or electric saw and just cut the pipe off. Or, just like when they want to steal the tires, they can take the whole truck."

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