ST. LOUIS — Thanksgiving travel season looks different for a lot of drivers this year. Cars are more likely to stay home throughout the holidays.
There’s a new reason in 2020 to keep a closer eye on where you park.
A record high number of catalytic converter thefts are happening all over St. Louis, focused mostly on south city. Thieves are sneaking under cars in the dark of night and making off with a very expensive part.
Mark Tucker almost caught one of those thieves in the act.
“My wife...she heard a grinding noise,” said Tucker. “And saw somebody come out from underneath our neighbor’s car which is a Toyota Yaris.”
Ring doorbell video from his neighborhood in Shaw shows an unidentified person fleeing the scene. They managed to get away with an expensive piece of Tucker’s Toyota Prius.
“I climbed under my car, which was behind the Yaris, and I saw a big empty space where the catalytic converter was supposed to be,” Tucker recalled.
PJ Hamill of St. Louis Auto said some cars, like Tucker’s Prius, are becoming a favorite target for catalytic converter thieves. The expensive components inside the parts can be sold for scrap.
“Prius' are real expensive, certain Kia's are very expensive. BMW's, Audi's of course, just because the parts from the dealers are so expensive,” said Hamill.
He added thieves seem to prefer cars that give them room to work.
“Mainly cars that are higher off the ground, SUV's, vans. Cars that sit up, so they can crawl underneath," he said.
Catalytic converters are part of most cars’ exhaust systems. They often contain precious metals like platinum.
St. Louis Auto is working on its 10th vehicle in four days that had its catalytic converter stolen.
“Two cuts like that and they're gone,” said Hamill. “This one where it's at, probably took them less than a minute.”
Hamill added the cost of repairing the damage can range from $300 to $3,000.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department said that catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed in 2020. According to their data, there have been 332 reports of stolen catalytic converters so far this year, a 560% increase over the 50 thefts reported in 2019 and 53 reported in 2018.
Social media posts show the thefts are widespread. Most of the incidents occurred in Districts 1 and 2, an SLMPD representative shared, with Tower Grove South, Shaw, Southwest Garden, Dutchtown, Bevo Mill and Carondelet hardest hit.
In the first week of November, SLMPD posted video of one such thief on Twitter to ask for tips. The video, taken in Clifton Heights, shows a man walking around a parking lot with a catalytic converter thief’s weapon of choice: a hand-held battery-powered saw.
An incident on November 21 in District 2 on the 5300 block of Pattison Avenue involved suspects described by the SLMPD as two white males in a white Chevrolet Trailblazer. On November 20, another catalytic converter was reported stolen on the 1500 block of Gregg Avenue, where suspects were described as driving a white pickup truck.
The SLMPD spokesperson added that detectives in North Patrol and South Patrol Divisions have collaborated to investigate the thefts.
SLMPD data from reports shows that Honda and Toyota models are targeted the most.
“It's easy money. It's like leaving a brand new Macbook on the seat of your car,” said Tucker.
He’s hoping to prevent it from happening again by replacing the stolen part with an after-market catalytic converter from a less valuable brand.
“I actually looked at getting one of the protective shields,” said Tucker. “But the mechanic said they'll cut right through that. It's almost better to leave it open if you have an after-market. That way they'll see it and they’ll say, 'Oh I don't want that, it's not worth anything, or worth as much,' and they'll keep going.”
Hamill recommends parking in a closed garage if possible, or at least parking close to your home so you can hear if someone starts doing damage to your car. He also advised that motion-sensing lights that come on when a person is nearby can help deter thieves.