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Prius owners scramble to outwit thieves

Susan Rankin does what she can to protect her twice-targeted Prius.

When Susan Rankin realized someone stole her Prius sedan’s catalytic converter for a second time in three months, it was really frustrating.

“Grrrrrrrrr,” she recalled saying, followed by a resigned: “Okay…” 

Rankin, a Prius owner since 2008, discovered the thefts in October and January, both times in her driveway in Durham’s Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood.

The theft of catalytic converters from Prius owners here started increasing again in early October, according to news reports. At least 17 thefts occurred within the first 12 days of the month, with most of them in District 5, a narrow band of mostly downtown streets clustered just north of the Durham Freeway, between Route 55 to west of Ninth Street, reported.

What motivates the thieves? It’s the precious metals in the emission control devices. These metals, palladium and rhodium, can be sold for $2,421 per ounce and $26,100 per ounce, respectively. With gold currently selling for only $1,731 per ounce, according to, the metals inside a Prius catalytic converter are highly sought after. 

Thefts have occured in recent years around the country and abroad, making it difficult for owners of the hybrid vehicles to find replacements. It can cost up to $3,000 to get back on the road.

“The first time, I was without a car for a week and the second time, three weeks,” said Rankin. “Because of the frequency of this happening in our area, and actually across the country, there is now a shortage of catalytic converters for Priuses.” 

Given that their cars have become prey, Prius owners try to protect their vehicles. Experts advise trying cages, shields, tapes, and welding to make their converters more difficult to steal.

None of these are foolproof, prompting Prius owners to reach out to one another and ask for help. “The problem is that if they don’t realize it’s welded, they can do a whole lot more damage to your car trying to get it off.” Rankin has learned, for instance. 

Members of the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood recently connected in an online forum and gave each other advice. One resident suggested Becker Automotive on Hillsborough Road for the installation of her Cat Security shield

“It would be really cool if an automotive magazine decided to do some surveys to see what’s most effective. That would be helpful,”  Rankin said.

In 2012, Durham police arrested multiple people for this crime, including one person charged with stealing 20 catalytic converters and causing more than $20,000 worth of damage to car owners.

In 2019, police reported 65 of these thefts from January to July, with vehicles in church parking lots and commercial vans frequent targets. Police then recommended that owners of targeted vehicles park in garages, engrave converters with license plate numbers or some other identifier, and set security systems to highly sensitive. 

Rankin opted for the protective shield after her converter was stolen for a second time. She’s been lucky, she said, because her insurance covered the cost of getting her car running again. But, it’s a hassle.

In other words, catalytic converter thieves don’t cause bodily harm. But they hurt.

“It’s not a victimless crime.” said Rankin. “It costs $3,000 to fix this. To someone who is in a different situation from me, who doesn’t have resources or can’t afford comprehensive insurance, it’s a big deal.”

9th Street Journal reporter Clara Love can be reached at

Clara Love