A free Santa Monica Police Department event to etch license plate numbers onto catalytic converters was fully booked within hours this week, with fifty residents quickly reserving spots to have their converters distinctly marked to discourage thieves. The SMPD marked each converter with the driver’s license plate number and a coat of neon paint, which could help lead to an arrest if the parts show up at a chop shop outside of town.

“For whatever reason, Priuses were the flavor of the month,” said Sgt. Roberto Villegas, of the rash of recent thefts. Villegas said the thieves hit Santa Monica neighborhoods, targeting cars parked overnight on the street.

The converters contain small amounts of valuable metals like platinum, palladium, and rhodium and can sell for as much as $640 on the black market.  In the past, trucks and sport utility vehicles were the prime targets for thieves.

Recently, mechanics at Santa Monica Motors say they’ve had a few customers come in needing new catalytic converters because of thefts.  Service Advisor Josh Godbold says it’s a bigger problem in his neighborhood in Echo Park, where thieves typically target Honda Elements.

“I would say every Honda Element within a mile radius of me has had its catalytic converter stolen,” Godbold said. “You can hear them in the morning because it creates a hole in the exhaust and the cars sound like a Harley Davidson.”

Godbold says Priuses and Elements are targets because it is easier for thieves to physically get under the cars.

Replacing a stolen converter on a Prius doesn’t come cheap, costing between $1772 and $1861, according to Repair Pal. The parts don’t typically include unique serial numbers or markings, making it hard for police to identify and return stolen parts.

Firestone donated a car lift to allow officers to etch the plates. The drivers will also get a sticker warning would-be thieves their converter has been marked.

“We want to prevent it from happening in the first place,” Villegas said.

The precious metals in the parts create a chemical reaction to convert CO, HC, and NOx exhaust gases into CO2, H2O and N gases.