Electric fences go up in defense of catalytic converters
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Electric fences go up in defense of catalytic converters

Jul 09, 2023

Local car dealers exasperated by catalytic converter theft are testing the saying that no one zapped by an electric fence makes that mistake twice.

About a dozen vehicle sales and rental businesses along Highway 99 have resorted to renting fences that deliver 7,000 volts at low amperage — enough to throw a man back but not cause lasting harm. It's been described as getting hit with a baseball bat.

The fences are usually combined with cameras and in some cases drones or patrols. The consensus so far is they're helping stem a crime that can cost thousands of dollars overnight — and take a vehicle out of commission for months.

North Bakersfield Toyota got a system installed in the spring after thieves who it seemed were being warded off by new electric fences along the Bakersfield Auto Mall instead made their way north along the 99, General Manager Andy Pappas said.

After losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to catalytic converter theft over the years — none since the fence went up — Pappas said it's worth the $2,200 per month, including repair, maintenance and monitoring hooked to a smartphone-enabled deployment and alert system.

"It's pretty expensive to just try to keep the place secure," he said.

Electric fences are the latest charge in the battle against the intractable problem of thieves snatching a critical and expensive auto part that remains in short supply.

Parts Manager Gary Stewart at Gibb Truck Centers said that, until a fence went up a couple of years ago around the property on the west side of Buck Owens Boulevard, the dealership was losing between $1,000 to $1,500 per week to catalytic converter theft.

Except for the time someone managed to drive a truck through it, he said, the system has mostly ended the problem. It costs about $1,300 per month to rent, Stewart said, and if something touches the fence, an alarm goes off and he can check his camera system remotely.

"It's definitely worth it to me," he said, noting that he nevertheless remains liable to repair-service customers whose trucks won't run without a catalytic converter and have a hard time believing it can take three months to get a new one.

A couple of employees have accidentally been shocked by the system, Stewart said, adding, "It puts out a pretty good thump."

An electric fence rental company that has won business in Bakersfield, South Carolina-based Amarok, has experienced double-digit growth nationwide during the past decade. Vice President of Marketing Kerry Gibson said sales have accelerated in the last three to five years because of expansion as well as an increase in crime against commercial and industrial properties.

She added it's rare a vehicle would breach the system, but if that happened an alarm would go off and authorities would be summoned.

The company takes responsibility for permitting, which can be slow, along with maintenance, repairs and notifications when the system goes off. Gibson said the system is medically safe but that Amarok would be liable if someone were injured, unless the person shocked fell on something else at the property.

CEO Richard Garrett of Bakersfield security company B.L. Solutions said electric fences work well as part of a complete security system, but they're not perfect.

With the right tools they can be defeated, he said, and there have been reports of systems failing to sound alarms and notify authorities when breached.

"There are pros and cons to it," Garrett said, adding that his company deploys retired local law enforcement as part of an information-sharing system involving motion-activated cameras, drones and artificial intelligence.

"If the property is surrounded by an electric fence, now you have an added layer of security," he said.

Chief Operating Officer John Pitre at Motor City Buick GMC Lexus noted a lot of dealers along the auto mall have gone with fences. But he said he doesn't like their high-security appearance and prefers B.L. Solutions' response times, even as neither system is perfect.

"It's unfortunate the world we live in today has a predisposition to people helping themselves to things that don't belong to them," Pitre said.

Masoud Bashirtash, a partner in a local chain of auto dealerships, said the operation has rented electric fences for every one of its half-dozen dealerships, and so far, he'd recommend it: "It has worked very well for us."

Some of the success is probably due to the private security company the business has also hired, he said, adding "I think it has been a combination of the two that has worked for us."

Mo Hosseini, director of operations for the dealership chain, also recommended the fences. He recalled instances in which moving security guards weren't fast enough to catch thieves who can cut out a catalytic converter in just two minutes.

The properties' vulnerability — they back up to Highway 99 — has required extra measures, Hosseini said. He said he appreciates that any activation of the system results in a notification to him and the lot manager at home.

He also likes that it's not lethal.

"They wanted me to try (getting shocked by the fence), but I really didn't want to," he said.

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