The rise of the ‘cat’ burglar - a multi-million-dollar black market left me stranded in LA

When my beloved nine-year-old Toyota’s catalytic converter was stolen, I thought it was a one-in-a-million crime. Turns out, I was one of a million. Statistics show the number of thefts is dropping, but that doesn’t help me while I’m car-less in Los Angeles waiting for a back-ordered replacement that will cost $2,000, writes Monica Greig

Saturday 18 May 2024 15:10 BST
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Monica Greig in her trusty 2015 Toyota Corolla, dubbed Hank, as they made their way West from Albuquerque to their new home in LA. Little did she know that after three months, Hank would fall victim to a new type of criminal: the ‘cat’ burglar
Monica Greig in her trusty 2015 Toyota Corolla, dubbed Hank, as they made their way West from Albuquerque to their new home in LA. Little did she know that after three months, Hank would fall victim to a new type of criminal: the ‘cat’ burglar (Monica Greig)

Cat burglars are out there, but they’re not the kind you assume. They’re not even the kind that steal your beloved pet. This variety of cat burglar is, to me, the worst kind. They’re the sneaky thieves making off with catalytic converters, leaving unwitting motorists stranded - and heavily out of pocket.

The reality of having your catalytic converter, also known as your “cat”, stolen is so harsh, inconvenient, and financially gut wrenching that if I had a real cat - one that I really loved and cared for - I'd offer it up in exchange for the old, rickety exhaust pipe that was once loosely attached to my fourth-hand car. A pipe that, unbeknownst to me, is easy to steal and is filled with valuable metals that can be crushed down into powder and sold on the black market.

I’ve been living in Los Angeles for almost three months now. My car, a scruffy 2015 Toyota Corolla fondly known as Hank, has been my best friend.

I bought Hank for $9,500 in Albuquerque before we made the two-day, 13-hour drive West to LA together. Since then, and despite having 130,000 miles on the clock, Hank has been my confidant, car-aoke partner and witness to bad dates. We go everywhere together (Hank has no choice) and I love him, but he’s down bad.

Monica Greig in her trusty 2015 Toyota Corolla, dubbed Hank, as they made their way West from Albuquerque to their new home in LA. Little did she know that after three months, Hank would fall victim to a new type of criminal: the ‘cat’ burglar
Monica Greig in her trusty 2015 Toyota Corolla, dubbed Hank, as they made their way West from Albuquerque to their new home in LA. Little did she know that after three months, Hank would fall victim to a new type of criminal: the ‘cat’ burglar (Monica Greig)

LA is a car city. It’s a concrete network of highways, freeways and expressways which connect a patchwork of suburban and metropolitan areas. Parts of LA are so unfriendly to pedestrians that some neighborhoods don’t even have sidewalks and to get from one area to another you might find yourself hiking up a canyon or running across a multi-lane highway holding onto your purse and your life because there’s no crosswalk to be seen. The reality is that if you don't live near where you work, which I don’t, then life without a car is very tricky.

And so, when I recently got into my banged up Corolla and turned on the usually inoffensive-sounding engine and heard the defining choking sound of a race car waking up the neighborhood, my heart sank. The upset was fast - and I was furious.

I coasted to the mechanic at the end of my street. They broke the news. My catalytic converter had been stolen. Then came worse news: it would cost around $1,500 to replace and another $1,000 for the labor to install the part. My comprehensive insurance will cover it with a $500 deductible, in this unlucky situation I somehow came out lucky but most people don’t opt for it. I’m realizing now I should have opted for rental compensation too. Dang!

While I had brief relief that insurance would cover most of it - it went from bad to worse.

After I called all the Toyota dealerships in the state, I got the same answer. I was in fact not one in a million but one of a million.

Catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed since the pandemic. According to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, thefts rose to 2,079 in 2021 and it became such a widespread problem that most states have already passed laws targeting it.

Thefts have begun to decline, in part because of these laws, but also because changes in commodity prices mean the metals in the cats, while still valuable, are no longer as valuable as they once were.

In 2023, the number of thefts nationwide were down 43 percent compared to the previous year.

That’s great news for people who aren’t having theirs stolen but right now, that doesn’t help me.

In just a few months in LA, my car has accompanied me through thick and thin. Hank has been my confidant, partner in car-aoke and witness to bad dates. Now he’s sitting in the shop at the back of a long wait list for a new catalytic converter (pictured before leaving snowy New Mexico for sunny LA)
In just a few months in LA, my car has accompanied me through thick and thin. Hank has been my confidant, partner in car-aoke and witness to bad dates. Now he’s sitting in the shop at the back of a long wait list for a new catalytic converter (pictured before leaving snowy New Mexico for sunny LA) (Monica Greig)

It will take at least two to three months for the part to come in from Toyota. And this leaves me, someone so ignorant about cars that I thought the timing belt set the clock on my dashboard, scouring the web for an off-brand part, one that is California compliant. A daunting task.

Toyota, it's time to ramp up production! Doesn’t the whole supply demand thing mean that when demand goes up supply should go up and the price should go down?! Economics class did not prepare me for the reality of how long these changes might take in real-life.

And take long they will.

The fifth part-dealer I called almost sent me into a panic attack when in an effort to console me he said: “Oh man, yeah it's real bad, I had one lady with a Prius come in and she waited a year-and-a-half for her cat”. That’s 547.9 days. If she rented a car for that long at $35 dollars a day it would have cost her more than $19,000 dollars, at which point she could get a new car - maybe even for the two of us.

But what even is a catalytic converter? And why are so many being stolen? Well, let me tell you, in the past week I've learned enough to declare myself an expert.

A catalytic converter is part of the exhaust system and basically makes vehicle emissions less toxic. It converts harmful gasses like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide into water vapor and carbon dioxide. In California it is illegal to drive without one and driving without can damage your engine.

What is so tragic is that these cat burglars don't even want the cat! They want the materials in them: platinum, palladium and rhodium. When converters are recycled they are ground into a powder of a combination of these materials - all of these materials are almost worth their weight in gold with rhodium almost double the price of gold per ounce. A regular converter can sell for up to $300 and a hybrid up to $1,500. For the cat-burglars it is quick money, for me catastrophe.

To prevent theft, some people get their VIN numbers etched onto their cats but once they are ground down into a powder, there is no way of distinguishing what's stolen from what's not. You can also try to deter theft by installing a cat shield for between $100 and $300 dollars but, unfortunately, no one told me that.

I’ve found myself car-less in a car city. LA is a concrete network of highways, freeways and expressways so unfriendly to pedestrians that some neighborhoods don’t even have a sidewalk, so for now I’m making the commute to work on the bus while reading Pride and Prejudice
I’ve found myself car-less in a car city. LA is a concrete network of highways, freeways and expressways so unfriendly to pedestrians that some neighborhoods don’t even have a sidewalk, so for now I’m making the commute to work on the bus while reading Pride and Prejudice (Monica Greig)

So, yeah, I’m mad.

I’m mad at the people who stole the converter, and I’m mad at the system where black market converters can be sold to legitimate recycling companies that turn a blind eye. But despite my fury at people turning a blind eye, I’m so desperate I’m considering turning a blind eye myself and issuing a plea of “please get in touch if you stole my cat, I’ll buy it back and won’t even press charges!”

For now, I’m taking the bus.

The logistics aren’t terrible. I can get to work in about an hour and 15 instead of the usual 35-minute drive and returning in rush hour takes about an hour and 45. yes, it’s annoying but on the plus-side I’m finally reading Pride and Prejudice while agonizing if I should give up on true love and give one of those bad dates a chance.

Outside of work, though, trying to get to around on time is almost impossible via public transport and totally impossible financially via Uber.

I work in Santa Monica and on Wednesdays I play soccer in Griffith Park. For those unfamiliar with LA they are at opposite ends of this sprawling city. The commute is impossible: three buses, then a 20 minute walk along an unlit, busy road with no sidewalk
I work in Santa Monica and on Wednesdays I play soccer in Griffith Park. For those unfamiliar with LA they are at opposite ends of this sprawling city. The commute is impossible: three buses, then a 20 minute walk along an unlit, busy road with no sidewalk (Monica Greig)
Outside of work, though, trying to get to around on time is almost impossible via public transport and totally impossible financially via Uber
Outside of work, though, trying to get to around on time is almost impossible via public transport and totally impossible financially via Uber (Monica Greig)

I work in Santa Monica and on Wednesdays I play soccer in Griffith Park. For those unfamiliar with LA, they are at opposite ends of this sprawling city. The commute is impossible: three buses, then a 20-minute walk along an unlit, busy road with no sidewalk to the car park right by the Zoo. No thank you.

The other alternative is to ask a friend for a ride but I’m new in town and the perils of LA traffic mean car-pooling is complicated. The only other option would be to get a $70 Uber, already $50 dollars more than the lowest price for a rental car per day at rent-a-wreck (the only available rental option for an under-25). For a month, that’s more than $800.

So, I’m stuck. I’m furious and still waiting for a replacement catalytic converter. My heart wrenches for poor old Hank as I type. Turns out I really am a ‘Cat’ Lady.

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