Nam Trinh knew something was wrong one morning in October when she turned on her 2008 Toyota Prius and heard a throaty roar, like a plane taking off.
Trinh had her wedge-shaped car repaired. But she heard the telltale growl again in January while she was in Sacramento. And again in February, in the parking garage of a Las Vegas casino. And again in March, at home in Los Angeles.
"By the fourth time, I was numb," said Trinh, who works for a hospitality technology company and lives in Eagle Rock. "I had no emotions left. I was like, 'Well, this is just how life is now. I guess my catalytic converter is going to be stolen every month.'"
Fifteen years ago, the Toyota Prius was so popular in California that buyers faced waits of up to seven months to purchase one. Now the aging hybrid is in demand again for an entirely different reason.
The second-generation Prius, sold from 2004 to 2009, has become a prime target for catalytic converter theft in California. The car's shoebox-sized anti-pollution device contains trace amounts of precious metals and can fetch several hundred dollars from scrap yards and recyclers.
Converter thefts have surged across the U.S. in the last two years. One analysis of repairs at 60,000 auto shops found that Ford F-150 trucks and Honda Accords were the most frequent theft targets nationally, while the Prius was 10th.
But in the West, the analysis found, the Prius took the No. 1 spot.
Catalytic converters in hybrids have a higher concentration of precious metals compared to cars that run solely on gas. The 2007 Prius' converter has a resale value of more than $1,000, while a converter in the 2007 F-150 fetches about $150. Newer Priuses are targets for thieves too, but they use a different converter that sells for less.
Insurance companies have reported a tsunami of theft claims filed by owners of older Priuses in California, as well as in Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and New Mexico.
The frequency of partial theft reports — a category that includes the theft of catalytic converters — spiked by nearly 850% in California from 2019 to 2021, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit funded by the insurance industry. About a quarter of the country's insured Priuses sold between 2004 and 2009 are in California.