This holiday season has seen an explosion in thefts of expensive, platinum-laced catalytic converters from parked cars, and authorities report that high-clearance sport utility vehicles are the targets of choice for thieves.
With a common socket wrench and 90 seconds, they leave drivers stuck with cars that sound like Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and facing repair bills topping $1,000.
"It's an epidemic. It's everywhere," said Lt. Bob Turnbull of the El Segundo Police Department.
Thefts of catalytic converters have been logged in the last month in Los Angeles, Pasadena, the Bay Area and Sacramento. Arrests have been reported from Seattle to Virginia, near Pittsburgh, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and in Tennessee, where the Highway Patrol busted a thief cutting converters from cars impounded in one of its own lots.
"We've had them all over the place; we've had them in broad daylight in a Vons parking lot," said Det. Jason Knickerbocker of the Manhattan Beach Police Department. "Most of them are at night. A lot of times, we never find the victim."
The prize is a catalytic converter, a device used to reduce emissions. Platinum is more valuable than gold, and the contents of a typical converter are worth $40 to $50 to scrap-metal dealers.
Some thieves use saws, but the preferred weapon in Southern California is a ratchet with a 14-millimeter socket. The thief crawls under the car and unfastens the bolts holding the converter, a process that accomplished crooks can complete in 90 seconds.
Drivers are particularly vulnerable during the holiday season, when masses of shoppers swarm parking lots and when revelers often leave home for several days, returning to discover they have been victimized.
Higher-clearance vehicles such as SUVs and particularly Toyota trucks and 4-Runners are favorites in Los Angeles, authorities report. Nationwide, authorities have reported thieves targeting pickups, Lexus and Toyota SUVs, all types of vans and some passenger cars. Even auto dealers have been hit, according to reports.
Late last month, Turnbull's detectives apprehended five alleged thieves, and their investigation led to an additional four arrests. Detectives believe that the group was working as a ring, hitting one city and then moving to another.
Before Thanksgiving, detectives broke up a three-man ring that had been hacking converters from the vehicles of commuters who had parked in the Lakewood Station lot of the Green Line. They sold them to a Compton auto wrecking yard.
The brazen thieves cruised around the lot, looking for the model they wanted, and quickly removed the devices, said Gayle Anderson of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
There's little that can be done, other than catching thieves red-handed.
"There are no identifying marks on these converters," Turnbull said. "When they take them into a scrap metal place or a mechanics shop, there's nothing to trace it with."
Last week, thieves hit an SUV parked in a garage at Mattel, the giant toy maker based in El Segundo. Thanks to surveillance videos, company security officers narrowed the possibilities, and police were able to extract a license plate number, which led to an arrest.
Most victims are not so lucky.
They often don't realize what has happened, police report. With organized thieves hopscotching the county, reports of thefts and arrests and recovery of stolen converters are sometimes made in different towns, authorities said.
Police say taking simple precautions can reduce the chances of becoming a crime victim. The primary rule is to park in a garage.
The next best safeguard is welding the converter to the body of the car, Turnbull said. At a cost of about $50, the device becomes part of the vehicle: much more difficult -- and time consuming -- to remove, he said.