'No recourse:' Catalytic converter thieves hit victims over and over in Bay Area

Curt Schacker got into his Toyota Prius earlier this month outside his home in Oakland and heard an abrasively loud road from underneath his car. 

After having his catalytic converter stolen five previous times, he knew exactly what had happened. 

"It's just a very sinking feeling," Schacker said in a recent interview with KTVU. "It's more like just a violation of the feeling of safety, you know, a society's only function when people can feel safe.

More and more victims like Schacker have been coming forward, telling KTVU they’ve been hit six, seven, eight times or more. And at hundreds of dollars a pop for insurance deductibles, the costs rack up, becoming yet another unforeseen expense that comes with living in the Bay Area. 

As catalytic converter thefts continue to rise in California, cases like Schackers are becoming all too common. California is the worst state in the nation for such thefts and the in the Bay Area, where residents are already feeling squeezed financially, the thefts are especially troubling.

To make matters worse, it’s harder to get replacements parts because the rising demand has put the parts on back order for months. Its derailing lives, rendering people’s vehicles inoperable that they often need to get to work, take their kids to school and other vital functions of everyday life. 

"Right now it just doesn't feel like there's any recourse or anything that I can do personally to help change this circumstance," Schacker said. 

Catalytic converter thefts have increased an estimated 400% since 2019, totaling tens of millions in stolen parts.

Catching the thieves can be difficult, too. Since they operate quickly under the cover of night, they're often gone before police can respond.   

California has recently passed several laws to curb the market for the parts, but so far, they seem to have had little effect on the demand. In November, federal officials conducted a massive take-down of a nationwide ring of catalytic converter thieves totaling tens of millions in stolen materials. 

The indictments in the case show a complex organized criminal enterprise stretching across the nation, highlighting the sophistication of the criminals. It also demonstrates who difficult in can be to disrupt the crimes. 

SEE ALSO: Catalytic converter thieves hit San Francisco neighborhood over and over

The stakes are also higher than ever. In January, thieves shot at San Francisco police officers. And last year, a crew fatally shot a 60-year-old man in Oakland who interrupted them. 

"We're seeing an epidemic of stolen catalytic converters," said Nafanua Pele, who operates Pele’s muffler works in Albany. 

He said about 15 people a day come in after having their catalytic converters ripped off and he says it can take up to 8 months to get a new part for the most commonly hit cars like the Prius. 

He said the metals inside catalytic converters, specifically rhodium, palladium and platinum have shot up in value, creating feverish demand on the black market.

But Pele has come up with a solution to deter the thieves. He’s retrofitting cars with a custom sheet metal cover. 

"When they see this, they move on to your next target that's accessible because all it's going to be blocked off, all the pipes and everything," Pele said, as he gave KTVU a up-close look at one of his anti-theft devices.

KTVU INVESTIGATIONS: New details revealed about Dublin prison cook who fondled woman in pantry

People have tried other ways to dissuade thieves in the past with mixed results – like ineffective strips ordered online that can be attached to the cars exhaust pipes near the catalytic converter.  

So far, Pele said thieves haven’t been able to foil his system that he knows of. 

He showed us pictures of a thief’s Sawzall blade that broke off while they were trying to bust through one of his setups.

Schacker in Oakland said he’s still waiting on a new catalytic converter and isn’t driving his car. He’s walking to the grocery store and can work from home for now. 

But once he gets it, he knows it’s only a matter of time before someone rips it off again.

"I feel pretty defenseless," he said. "And other friends of mine and people I know have suffered through this same circumstance feel the same way."

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@fox.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky