Mark Hixon started his Prius at Ala Wai Boat Harbor late last month and was immediately startled by what sounded like a race car revving its engine next to him.

Next, came the smell of unfiltered exhaust.

Hixon, a marine biology professor and head of the zoology graduate program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, had parked around 8:30 that morning and returned that afternoon to discover his catalytic converter had been stolen right from under his car — in broad daylight near a busy intersection.

“There’s no muffler so the engine noise comes straight out of the engine with all the pollution and smoke and everything else,” Hixon said. “First, I just thought someone had started a hot rod next to me. Then I realized that it was my car.”

Hixon then checked the underside of his Prius and noticed the spring bolts, which held the converter in place, were scattered on the ground.

“There was no note,” Hixon said. “There was no indication that anyone had witnessed anything or made any attempt to let me know.”

Hixon had just become the latest victim of a crime that has been sweeping both the state and the nation.

The Honolulu Police Department has received more than 1,800 reports of stolen catalytic converters this year. There have also been hundreds of attempted thefts, Michelle Yu, a department spokeswoman said.

According to local auto shop owners, lawmakers, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, theft of catalytic converters has been on the rise for the past three years.

“The tow truck operator told me he had done 17 just that one day alone,” Hixon said. “He said some days are much worse than others.”

Kaimuki Auto Repair shop gets at least one or two inquiries every week about getting a new catalytic converter. Jacob Geanous/Civil Beat/2021

According to the NICB, catalytic converter theft has spiked across the country over the past three years. In 2018, there were 282 catalytic converter thefts reported in the U.S. monthly, according to the NICB. That number jumped to 1,203 a month in 2019 and 2,347 a month in 2020.

“Vehicle thefts, carjackings, and break-ins are all crimes we’ve witnessed trending upward for several months, and now catalytic converter thefts are also on the rise,” NICB President David Glawe wrote in a press release earlier this year.

“We have seen a significant increase during the pandemic. It’s an opportunistic crime. As the value of the precious metals contained within the catalytic converters continues to increase, so do the number of thefts of these devices. There is a clear connection between times of crisis, limited resources, and disruption of the supply chain that drives investors towards these precious metals.”

Catalytic converters are devices that change harmful substances in the vehicle’s exhaust fumes, such as carbon monoxide or nitric oxide, into water vapor and carbon dioxide. Thieves often target catalytic converters – which contain platinum, rhodium, and palladium – and sell them for between $200 and $1,000, depending on the car.

Hybrid cars, like Hixon’s Prius, are often worth more to thieves because they contain higher quantities of precious metal.

The increase in thefts has caused a back order for catalytic converters across the country.

“A lot of times they are factory backordered, which means they actually have to manufacture it by scratch before sending it out,” Laurie Marcuiller, a manager at Kaimuki Auto Repair, said.

“Usually for parts … we can order from the mainland and they have it available there.” But, she added, because catalytic converter theft “is so common everywhere, it’s not available anywhere so they have to make it at the manufacturers from scratch before they can even send it to us.”

Hixon, who is still waiting on his new catalytic converter, paid $300 for the new part after his insurance covered its share. However, without insurance, the devices can cost from $3,000 to $4,000, according to Marcuiller, who said one dealership told her it would take two months to get a new catalytic converter.

Lawmakers Consider A Remedy

In Hawaii, lawmakers have tried to reduce the spate of catalytic converter thefts. Earlier this year, a bill was drafted to address the issue by forcing those who sell catalytic converters to produce evidence that they own the vehicle the device came from. The bill also required buyers to take photos of the documentation provided by sellers and called for the theft of catalytic converters to become a Class C felony.

The bill, HB446, and its Senate companion SB55 also included a provision to increase the fine for recyclers found guilty of obtaining stolen property, from between $25 and $500 to between $100 and $2,000. This would be enforced during routine inspections by police.

The bill made it through the Hawaii House and was amended at several points before getting to the Senate, where it stalled in the Judiciary Committee in late March.

“It’s pretty frustrating because this was an obvious issue that affected many constituents on Oahu as well as neighbor islands, something that really affects every household,” said Rep. Jackson Sayama, co-author of the bill. “Not everyone has several thousand to dish out to replace a converter. Even to put a shield on it costs several hundred dollars.”

Catalytic converter shields, which are fitted over the converter to protect against theft, can cost between $300 and $600 with installation.

Sayama, who represents District 20 including St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Maunalani Heights, Wilhelmina Rise and Kaimuki, said he planned to reintroduce the bill at the next legislative session and collaborate with HPD to reduce the theft of catalytic converters.

“I don’t intend to stop this initiative just by passing legislation,” Sayama said. “I plan to work with HPD officers in my district and around Oahu to ensure inspections are going to be happening and this law, if enacted, would be enforced.”

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