The scary truth about thousands of catalytic converter thefts

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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.

Related:
Buying RV insurance: Sort out the terms, part 1
Buying RV insurance: Sort out the terms, part 2

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John Daniels
3 months ago

Another easy target for theft are pickup truck tailgates.

They are easy to steal and auto body shops buy them up for cheap.

Always keep yours locked at all times!

And, it might just thwart the theft of your 5th-wheel hitch (it worked for me).

Chris
3 months ago

I work for a regional insurance company that only insures churches in six southern states. In 2020 we paid almost $100,000 in claims for catalytic converter thefts from church vans and buses.

Last edited 3 months ago by Chris
Brian Holmes
3 months ago

Ebay has pages of them for sale most for hundreds of dollars, all from salvaged cars right? Scarp is just a small part of it.

Dan
3 months ago

My guess is the thieves would use a ratcheting pipe cutter made specifically for exhaust, which will quietly cut the pipe by hand in just a few seconds. Most exhaust shops use them. And welding the converter to the frame will just destroy the exhaust system, which is mounted with rubber pieces so it can vibrate and bounce independent of the rest of the vehicle. Maybe a custom made cage welded to protect the converter, but you cant just weld that to anything under the vehicle.

PennyPA
3 months ago

The article says gasoline-powered engines. Does a diesel have a catalytic converter?

John Lucke
3 months ago
Reply to  PennyPA

Diesels have their own version of exhaust aftertreatment, but since the pollutants that they are trying to convert are different than a gasoline engine, they do not have the same expensive rare earth metals that make the gasoline cats a target. The diesel aftertreatment systems are also much larger and heavier than the gasoline version which makes them more difficult to do a quick cut and run.

Ronnie Bolling
3 months ago

Seems that a simple (and inexpensive) anti-theft deterrent would be to replace the bolts that attach the convertor(s) to the pipes using bolts that are designed so only special tools will remove them. Here’s a link to one company that sells such a bolt:
https://www.mcmaster.com/tamper-resistant-bolts/

Dave
3 months ago
Reply to  Ronnie Bolling

Wouldn’t help, the thieves cut the connecting pipes, they do not bother with bolts

Ingrid
3 months ago

The RV Park where we winter, in northern Phoenix, had their ‘secure’ storage lot broken into and numerous motorhomes had their catalytic converters stolen. We were perplexed and this article certainly explains why. Sad!

Don Kostyal
3 months ago

From my son-in-law, a Detective in Westchester CO, NY:

Those catalytic converter thefts are a big thing I have going on in my job right now. They are hitting multiple lots in a night. For now only taking Honda parts. So all the cars have been either a Honda or an Acura

Brenda G
3 months ago

Hopefully, a 2009 Hyundai SUV “cat” is undesirable!

Wanda
3 months ago

In 2020 Cat Thieves got our converter while our Tioga was parked in our lighted drive way Progressive insurance paid to have ours replaced and the anti theft basket welded to the frame Muffle shop say the aftermarket cat’s don’t have the prized metals thieves are wanting.

Tommy Molnar
3 months ago

At the RV park where we’re staying in Houston, they contract a van/bus service to pick up residents several time a day and make the rounds to several hospitals. It’s a great service for us who are staying here for medical reasons. On three separate occasions the vans failed to show up. It was because thieves had hit their yard and stole all the catalytic converters on their vehicles. Three separate times! You would think they would take measures to prevent this, but so far, nope.

Claudio
3 months ago

Hi everyone
i am canadian and live where the weather gets real cold and where there is road salt ! Our catalytic converters are usually rusted and so are the bolts , so they are impossible to remove quickly …
they are hacked off with a sawzall , an axe or anything they can use…
the damages are higher and costly and a lot of vehicles are sent to the junkyard because of it and the authorities do absolutely nothing to stop it …

Traci
3 months ago

I used to park in a large commuter train parking lot every day and it was like a shopping mall for “cat” thieves. There were always thefts going on and they finally stepped up security