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Catalytic Converter Thefts Explained

The US has seen a spike in catalytic converter thefts over the past year. Here’s what’s driving the thefts and what you can do to protect your car.

The Hidden Bling in Your Exhaust

Catalytic Converter
Catalytic Converter

Among the stranger trends to emerge over the last 18 months is a major rise in catalytic converter thefts. Across the country, and in many other parts of the world, thieves are sliding under cars and sawing off or unbolting catalytic converters. The impromptu exhaust mods leave Priuses sounding like they’re rolling coal and owners pouring thousands into replacement parts.

So, what’s behind this latest automotive crime wave? It turns out, another knock-on affect of the pandemic has been a spike in the value of the precious metals found in your car’s exhaust system.

Supply, Demand, and the Black Market

Platinum ingots
Platinum ingots

Inside your car’s catalytic converter are precious metals including platinum, palladium, and rhodium. These metals “scrub” your engine’s exhaust and convert noxious chemicals like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide into less harmful ones like carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

The reason thieves are so eager to make off with your catalytic converter is that the prices of those precious metals have risen precipitously over the last year. Platinum is up to around $1,200 an ounce. Palladium is up to $2,800. But it’s rhodium that’s seen the biggest increase. It now sells of almost $22,000 per ounce. Mined primarily in South Africa, Russia, and Zimbabwe, these metals have risen in price due to reductions in mine outputs related to pandemic work slowdowns.

Periodic Table showing Rhodium and Palladium
Periodic Table showing Rhodium and Palladium

While the amounts of these precious metals in a catalytic converter come in the fractions of ounces, an individual cat can still fetch between $25- and $250-dollars’ worth of scrap for would-be thieves. Partly this is due to the thriving recycling business that takes old materials like catalytic converters and resells those precious metals back to manufacturers.

Prime Targets

2021 Toyota Prius - pressroom.toyota.com
2021 Toyota Prius - pressroom.toyota.com

Advice to avoid auto theft as always been to park in a well-lit public place. Unfortunately, all it takes for thieves to remove a catalytic converter is a jack, an electric saw and about two minutes. That speed and ease have made thieves ever bolder.

One of the most common vehicles targeted has been the Toyota Prius. Not only does the hybrid’s catalytic converter house a greater than average among of those exhaust scrubbing metals, because of the hybrid design, its internal combustion engine is less active, and therefore putting out less total exhaust than the average car. This means a cleaner cat with less exhaust contamination.

Best Manual Cars of 2021
1999 Ford F-250 - carsforsale.com
1999 Ford F-250 - carsforsale.com

Other prime targets for thieves are trucks and SUVs. The extra ride height of these vehicles makes accessing the cat even easier. Anecdotal reports indicate that Honda Elements and Ford pickups, especially older model heavy-duty versions, are also popular among thieves.

Protecting Your Car

Catalytic Converter Clamp - napaonline.com
Catalytic Converter Clamp - napaonline.com

Replacing a stolen catalytic converter can run you anywhere from $1,000 to over $3,000, depending on the vehicle. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the case of protecting your car’s exhaust system this means anti-theft measures.

These can include bolting a metal plate to the underside of the car or welding rebar or steel cabling across the catalytic converter. Another tactic has been to paint the cat a bright color and then etch the VIN number into the cat, making it easier to trace for investigators, harder to fence with a buyer, and therefore less attractive to would-be thieves. Also, make sure you’ve got full coverage insurance on your vehicle. Most policies do cover theft of parts (after you’ve met your deductible, of course). And finally, car alarms and cameras can help both deter thieves and record valuable information for investigators.

Car insurance policy
Car insurance policy

If you’re unfortunate enough to come out one morning and find your ride sounding like a rat rod, here’s what to do. First, contact the police and report the theft. Next, contact your insurer and takes pictures to submit with your claim. And after you’ve gotten a replacement cat consider anti-theft measures like welded rebar, especially if you know thieves are active in your area.

Hopefully, as global supply chains recover from the disruptions of the pandemic, the value of the precious metals like rhodium will stabilize and catalytic converters won’t be such attractive targets for theft.

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Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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