By Tony Barthel
Catalytic converter thefts are on the rise and are becoming ever more common according to a few sources. Stealing a catalytic converter is relatively easy and can net the thief a good return on their minimal time investment. How much? On the black market, used cats, as they’re called, can go for sometimes several hundred dollars. They may take as little as a minute to steal.
Sandra and Ricardo were planning to start their day early and get a jump start on their first trip towing their new trailer. The day came, they took care of some final details at home and hopped into their pickup, a late model Toyota Tundra. When they fired it up, Sandra described the sound as “someone riding a Harley” nearby. But it was early in the morning, and they were the only ones around.
Ricardo jumped out to see what the racket was with their relatively new Tundra and looked underneath to find a big void where the catalytic converters were.
What is a catalytic converter?
Catalytic converters have been on almost every gasoline-powered vehicle sold in the U.S. since the mid-1970s. The converters are almost magical in that they use a catalyst to convert harmful and carcinogenic pollutants into essentially harmless water vapor.
Inside a catalytic converter are several rare earth metals that have spiked significantly in value in the past few years. Rhodium, which started the year around $6,000 per ounce, is now at about $16,000. Platinum has hit a two-year high in value.
What makes the thefts more tempting is that a thief with simple hand tools can often slip under high-riding pickups and SUVs in the dark of night. They can then have the converter in hand in under a minute. Since insurance covers the loss of these and the theft rate is so high, there is little that many law enforcement agencies are doing to stop them. There is little that can really be done, for that matter.
How many catalytic converter thefts have there been?
The precise number of thefts is unknown. The National Insurance Crime Bureau, the prime data source for vehicle thefts reported to insurance companies, stopped tracking converter thefts after 2015. In that year, the NICB wrote that nearly 4,000 catalytic converters were reported stolen nationwide – a 23 percent increase since 2008. They added that the real number was “much higher.”
With vehicle emissions systems now well-integrated into a vehicle, it basically will not operate properly without all systems in place. Not that you’d want to drive around with part of your exhaust system missing.
You also would likely void the warranty of a vehicle if you drove without this component. And you certainly wouldn’t pass an emissions test.
The thief may get anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars selling your catalytic converter on the open market or to a metals dealer. But the cost of replacing one of these units at a dealership can run into the triple digits – some units are over $2,000.
Should scrap metal dealers be held accountable?
If you think, as I do, that scrap metal dealers should be held accountable for buying these, that is the case at least in some states. In Oregon, for example, the law dictates that scrap dealers are supposed to get a copy of the seller’s ID, a photo of the seller, the license plate number of the seller’s vehicle and video of the transaction itself.
However, plenty of out-of-state buyers will be only too happy to do business by mail as long as you have a copy of your driver’s license. Or anybody’s driver’s license.
To make matters worse, as sections of the economy stumble and metal prices continue to rise, the incidence of thefts is only likely to increase.
Ironically, while I was writing this article a catalytic converter was stolen from one of our own writer’s son’s car. It’s that common. Last week a neighbor’s Prius got hit. The Toyota Prius is a very, very common target for this. So it’s not just vehicles that sit high off the ground and make it easy for thieves.
How can you tell if this happens?
You will almost certainly know if your vehicle’s catalytic converter is removed. It will immediately be very loud, as the catalytic converter is a function of the vehicle’s exhaust system.
But it could also be dangerous to you to drive it with this removed as these often sit right under the passenger compartment of a vehicle. That means the toxic engine exhaust, which is now not being processed completely because of the absence of the converter, is dumping out right under the passenger compartment.
Will your car insurance cover the catalytic converter theft?
Car insurance policies cover a catalytic converter theft if you have comprehensive coverage on your vehicle. Comprehensive coverage is a higher level of coverage than what’s required by most states.
Your deductible will apply if you have one on your comprehensive coverage. To find out what your deductible is, check your insurance declaration page or call your insurance agent.
While the part itself can be only a few hundred dollars to replace, repairing your car could cost upwards of $1,000. This would depend on the damage left behind by the thief and your vehicle’s year, make and model.
You may also find that your insurance provider does not pay for a factory original (Original Equipment Manufacturer) part but will cover an aftermarket part. On my wife’s car, this was a significantly inferior product that had to be replaced less than a year later.
How to protect yourself from a catalytic converter theft
Allstate Insurance shared their tips for preventing the theft of a “cat” from your vehicle. These tips have been sourced by several police agencies as well and are as follows:
- When possible, park in well-lit areas and close to building entrances.
- If you have a garage at your house, park your car inside and keep the garage door shut.
- Have the catalytic converter welded to your car’s frame, which may make it harder to steal.
- Consider engraving your vehicle identification number (VIN) or contact information on the exterior of the catalytic converter. This may help alert a scrap dealer that it was stolen and make it easier to identify the owner. A sticker won’t likely work, as a component of the catalytic converter’s function is a tremendous amount of heat.
- Calibrate your car’s alarm to set off when it detects vibration.
Understanding when your car might be a target for catalytic converter theft is the first key to preventing it. By following these protective measures, you may help deter thieves from targeting your car.