The Tracy Police Department introduced a new tactic in the fight against catalytic converter thefts that have been growing across the state by holding their first Etch & Catch event on Saturday at Tracy High.

Det. Matt Grijalva, a Tracy police officer assigned to a regional auto theft task force, said the theft of catalytic converters is rampant throughout the state.

“What we’ve seen is that it just has become a major problem throughout our county,” Grijalva said. “Working in the auto theft task force where I’m currently assigned, we see just report after report after report of catalytic converter thefts.

To combat the thefts, the department hosted an event where unique ID numbers were etched onto the catalytic converters of vehicles for free in effort to track them in case they are stolen.

“What we’re doing here is we’re giving law enforcement a leg to stand on. Because as is right now, we’ve ran across the problem where we stop someone, and they have five or six catalytic converters in their car. We know they’re stolen, but we can’t prove it because we don’t have a victim,” Grijalva said. “What we’re doing here is etching a number on it so that it will give us something to follow up on and try and identify a victim.”

He said having a victim to tie the crime to gives a district attorney more opportunity to charge someone with the theft.

“It’s a community effort that everyone needs to do, and I hope it gets to the dealership where these catalytic converters start to get serialized, that way we can run a number just like an engine number or a transmission number or a VIN number on a car.”

A catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s emission system and uses a chamber called a catalyst to change the harmful compounds from an engine’s emissions into safe gases, like steam. It works to split up the unsafe molecules in the gases that a car produces before they get released into the air.

The catalyst inside a catalytic converter is made typically from platinum or a similar metal, such as rhodium or palladium.

Grijalva said they have learned from people that have been arrested is that the thefts are being driven by the price paid for the stolen converters and auto shops that aren’t reputable. The shops in question turn around and sell the converters to customers when they come in, who are getting the stolen converters for a cheaper price.”

The precious metals inside the converters can fetch a high price.

“From what we’ve been told it’s thousands of dollars an ounce,” Grijalva said.

“At this point people just have to put themselves on the defense, this crime is rampant throughout the state,” Grijalva said. “It’s happening all times throughout the day. On multiple times in my journeys with the task force we’ve pulled up on people under a car removing a cat.”

Video surveillance of a theft shows it takes only a minute to remove one of the converters once the car has been jacked up.

At Saturday’s event, students from the Tracy High auto mechanics class and Auto Club crawled under the vehicles to etch the numbers on the converters.

The registered owner of the vehicle was required to be there with a valid ID.

Along with etching the converters, residents can take other steps to prevent the thefts according to Grijalva.

“Video surveillance is great. It helps us especially when we’re investigating an incident, but you can still go to muffler shops — I’ve contacted multiple muffler shops in town — that are willing to put the bars across, which helps prevent them from cutting it out. They can’t pull it out because there is a protective cage,” Grijalva said.

This was the first etch event for the department, but it plans to hold several more, which will be open to anyone including residents in surrounding communities.

“The more numbers we can get etched on to catalytic converts will be helpful to us and helpful to another agency that may come across someone that has a bunch of stolen cats,” Grijalva said.

• Contact the Tracy Press at tpnews@tracypress.com or 835-3030.

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