Costa Mesa police are upfront with catalytic-converter thieves: We are waiting for you.
In the wake of such thefts more than doubling in the city in a year, Costa Mesa police have set out bait cars throughout the city — monitored by undercover officers.
Don’t say the cops didn’t warn the thieves.
“CATALYTIC CONVERTER THEFTS,” two electronic signs flash to motorists, one at Newport Boulevard and Fair Drive on the east side of the city, and the other at Adams Avenue and Albatross Drive across town. Then they flash: “BAIT CARS IN THE AREA.”
In 2020, there were 115 reported catalytic-converter thefts. Last year, there were 318. Costa Mesa’s problem is a Southern California one, especially during the pandemic.
“Which cars? Where? We won’t tell. Just know that we are in the area monitoring,” the Police Department said with a Facebook post announcing the operation, which kicked off on Thursday, Jan. 13.
“With the message boards, we wanted to let the community know we’re taking this seriously and hopefully it can deter some of the criminals,” Capt. Joyce LaPointe said. “They know that (bait cars) are out there and they might be taking a car that was observed by a police officer.”
Costa Mesa police arrested 16 suspects related to catalytic-converter thefts last year, spokeswoman Roxi Fyad said.
The city’s officials aren’t divulging details of the operation. They won’t say how many bait cars are about, only that they are being monitored by officers and can be somehow tracked.
Other agencies have used bait programs to deter car thieves. Anaheim police set out bait boxes with GPS tracking devices to nab porch pirates.
In November, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach police hosted an event in Surf City where 130 vehicle owners got catalytic converters etched with the vehicle’s license plate number. Police were able to return one etched catalytic converter to its owner after it was found, Costa Mesa Police Chief Ron Lawrence said.
Catalytic converters are coveted by thieves because they contain honeycomb structures coated with precious metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, which could net criminals hundreds of dollars at a metal recycler for each one.
Among the targeted types, Capt. LaPointe said, are Toyota Prius, Honda, GMC trucks and older-model Toyota trucks. Some of the vehicles’ converters hold more precious metal than others, while some trucks are easier to crawl under.
The captain advises vehicle owners to park in garages, or well-lit areas covered by a surveillance camera. There are after-market anti-theft devices, too.
Gary Frahm, general manager at ExperTec Automotive, an auto-repair shop in Huntington Beach, has said catalytic-converter repairs can range from $450 to $3,000.
Suspects arrested on suspicion of stealing catalytic converters could face charges of grand theft, conspiracy to commit grand theft, and vandalism of more than $950, all felonies, Orange County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Kimberly Edds said. She added the charges could vary on a case-by-case basis.
Costa Mesa, with its electronic signs, is warning more than catalytic-convert thieves.
“We want the criminals to think that anything out there that looks appealing for them to steal could be a piece of our bait program,” Chief Lawrence said.