When Josy turned the ignition on her 2010 Prius one morning this February, she heard an unsettling rattle coming from underneath her car. Her girlfriend, Glory, unfortunately knew the sound all too well.
Once again, thieves had targeted the cars parked at Glory’s Indianapolis apartment complex, searching for catalytic converters — the valuable, canister-like part of the car responsible for transforming harmful emissions into less-polluting gas. Glory, a 23-year-old librarian, already had her “cat” stolen from her 2016 Kia Sportage twice, once in April 2021 and another time in March 2022. Now it was Josy’s turn.
Glory and Josy — whose last names are being withheld to protect their privacy — are not alone. From San Diego to Boston, nationwide catalytic converter thefts appear to be at a historic high. Insurance claims for these thefts increased from 16,660 claims in 2020 to 64,701 in 2022, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s latest report released last week.
At first glance, catalytic converters seem like a weirdly specific part to steal. But there’s a reason for that — they’re rich in precious metals, such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium. A thief can earn a couple hundred bucks from a typical catalytic converter. (In the US, secondhand converters aren’t reused in cars. Rather, these parts eventually end up at refineries that process the metal.)
The thefts are brazen and can occur in under 90 seconds, and have even taken place in broad daylight. Police historically have had a hard time tracking thefts because it’s near impossible to identify catalytic converters once they’re stolen. In some rare cases, when someone has caught a thief red-handed, it has ended in bloodshed.
It can cost up to thousands of dollars and weeks of waiting to get a converter replaced. Like any other car part, catalytic converters are specific to the make and model of the car. (While most cars have one catalytic converter, some have two and others can have up to four.) If you have an electric vehicle, you’re in luck — only combustion cars and hybrid vehicles have catalytic converters.
It’s easy to write off these thefts as random acts that occasionally get featured on the 11 o’clock news. But the scale is much, much bigger than that. Last November, the Department of Justice cracked down on a $545 million nationwide theft ring. Law enforcement arrested 21 people and seized “millions of dollars in assets, including homes, bank accounts, cash, and luxury vehicles.”
If neighborhood listservs, local news segments, and frustrated tweets are to be believed, it’s likely that 2023 will continue to see higher than normal numbers. Drivers can take some steps to deter theft — more on those below — but the problem has gotten to a point where lawmakers and car manufacturers have to act.
What is a catalytic converter anyway?
The science behind your catalytic converter is nothing short of incredible.
Crudely put, a catalytic converter is a small loaf-sized metal tube under your car that takes the gasses produced from your engine and makes them less harmful to the environment. If you crack it open, the insides resemble a honeycomb. Those insides — usually composed of platinum, palladium, and rhodium, alongside some other metals — are what chemically “converts” that gas.
Let’s zoom out for a system-wide view. You’ve probably heard of a 4- or 8-cylinder engine. Every time you start your engine, thousands of tiny combustions in each of those cylinders give your car the energy to move, explained Talena Handley, a California-based mechanic and owner of Girlie Garage, a car education organization for women.
Those mini-combustions also create fumes that need some way to exit the engine. Your converter takes those fumes and transforms them into nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water, and oxygen. Then the exhaust travels through the muffler and out the tailpipe.
Before the invention of the catalytic converter, cars simply just … let those unchanged fumes into the atmosphere. It wasn’t until the EPA passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 that vehicle emissions were regulated in the US. By 1975, most cars had to be equipped with a catalytic converter in order to meet those emission goals. (A fun unintended consequence of that legislation? The widespread adoption of catalytic converters forced companies to remove lead from gasoline since it can damage the converter. By 1986, lead was fully eliminated from gasoline in the US.)
The crime uptick and how these thefts happen
One of the questions surrounding the meteoric rise in catalytic converter theft is “Why now?” The answer, as you may have guessed, has something to do with changes in the supply chain wrought by the pandemic.
Platinum, palladium, and rhodium are all scarce metals that have to be mined. Rhodium, the most rare and valuable of the three, is mined mostly in South Africa, followed by Russia.
Although thefts slowly began creeping up in 2019, they grew in 2020 and boomed in 2021 mostly because of the pandemic, the experts I spoke with told me. Like everywhere else in the world, workers couldn’t mine, process, and ship these metals due to restrictions. And if they did, it’s likely there were other hurdles and disruptions along the supply chain.
The fact that people weren’t driving their cars as often during the beginning of the pandemic combined with higher valuations for these metals created a perfect storm to incentivize catalytic converter theft.
“There’s other people who are illegally enjoying the ride saying, ‘Okay, if these precious metals are up high, we’re going to go and take them,’” says Donovan Bates, the owner of DMV Recycling, a metal recycling company based in Virginia. He buys converters from both individuals and mechanic shops, and then later sells to a refinery.
Catalytic converters range in price, depending on the year, make, and model. Those that have more precious metals — like hybrid cars, such as the Toyota Prius — are more likely to be targeted. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Prius is the number one hit car in the West (and California the number one state for thefts, per the NICB), with its two catalytic converters running up to a grand each, making it a double whammy for thieves.
Other cars that are likely to be hit include fleet vehicles (such as USPS trucks, school buses, and even Oscar Mayer’s Wienermobile, which tend to sit unmonitored in lots when not in use) and anything with a higher clearance, including trucks and SUVs. Since these vehicles have more room under them, it’s easier for thieves to slip underneath, slice the converter out, and slide out undetected.
(It doesn’t always go smoothly — in February, an unsuspecting driver of a Ford Excursion in California had been asleep in a retail parking lot when a thief crawled under and began sawing. Awoken by the sound, the driver accidentally ran over the thief, killing them.)
Thieves usually operate in teams, according to Handley and Bates. Give a team an hour, and rows of cars in a parking lot will get hit. All it takes is an electric saw or other metal-cutting tool.
After a cat is stolen, you’re at a greater risk of getting hit again once you’ve replaced it, said Handley. “Because then they know that you’re vulnerable and they know you’re going to fix it,” she explained. “And if your car is still sitting in your driveway a month later with a new catalytic converter, that new catalytic converter actually has more fresh material in it. They’re going to hit you again.”
The number of catalytic converters a thief has in their possession matters. Each converter only has a tiny amount of precious metals, so it’s much more worthwhile to steal dozens, if not hundreds. In the US, most thieves will sell converters to several metal recyclers or scrap yards that aren’t checking for identification.
These middlemen, Bates says, will pay an individual or entity up front for a converter, and then sell to a refinery once they’ve accumulated enough worth selling. (To be clear, Bates’s company does track drivers and business licenses.) Because the processing machines are gigantic and require at least 2,000 pounds worth of material, most shops will need to sell around 800 converters at a time. Then the converters are crushed into dust and refined. The precious metals are then separated, sold to a final end user, and later recycled into new converters, dental fillings, jewelry, you name it.
How to protect yourself from catalytic converter theft
Beyond the typical safety tips of parking in a secure garage or in a well-lit place, there are a few steps you can take to give yourself an extra layer of protection.
The first thing you can do is contact your insurance company and see whether upgrading or changing your coverage makes sense for your needs. I spoke with several victims across the country, and the amount they paid for a replacement was contingent on their policy. It might mean you have a higher bill each month, but if you have a car that’s heavily targeted, don’t have a garage to park in, or live in an area that has had a spike in theft, it’s worth looking into.
Lyssa, a 39-year-old school teacher in Oakland, upgraded her insurance after her 2005 Toyota Highlander was hit three times in 2022. It wasn’t just her; her husband’s 2012 Prius was hit in 2020. At the time, they decided to take the buyout from their insurance instead of paying the $1,000 co-pay to replace the Prius’s converter. When the Highlander’s converter was cut out the first two times in September, they replaced it each time. But after round three, it was time to get better insurance (and an anti-theft cable welded to the converter — more on this below).
“It can be a really painful realization if you get the cheap insurance, like one of my coworkers did, and then lose your catalytic converter and then find out that you don’t have any coverage for that,” she says. “So you actually have to pay for the whole $3,000. Which, you know, if you’re driving an old Camry, that’s more than your car is worth.”
On the deterrence front, regardless of what model car you have, Handley recommends talking to your mechanic to install a “cat shield,” which is a sheet of metal that covers where the converter is. They range from $50-$500 (as with everything, the make and model of your car affect the price). Other options include cables that are similar to what you would see for a bike lock — those are a bit more affordable, but easier to break.
“The reason the cat shield actually deters people is because it takes a really long time and it’s very noisy,” Handley said. “It takes a longer time to cut through it, so if you have to linger to cut through it, you have a higher chance of attracting attention. If they’re really determined, they’ll still do it, though.”
The next course of action is etching your vehicle identification number (VIN) onto your catalytic converter, says Bates, the metal recycler. As mentioned above, converters don’t come that way. Recyclers who see an etched converter may be less likely to buy it, but it won’t stop a thief from stealing it. One company is creating VIN stickers and a database to track, but it’s not widely used among recyclers, Bates says.
“The real problem is that we don’t have a good infrastructure in place to stop catalytic converter theft,” Bates said.
He argues that either a state-based or federal government database for catalytic converters that is easily accessible for recyclers and repair shops could work. Manufacturers first would need to engrave VINs onto converters as part of their process to ease the cost and mental burden on drivers, but if there was a searchable database that allowed legal transfer of ownership, it would save a lot of headaches.
Sergeant Bob Carson of the Houston Police Department confirmed that identification is difficult for police, too. “If I stopped you with five catalytic converters in your car,” he said. “I couldn’t connect you to any specific vehicle.” Sometimes, he added, his reports could match a converter to the cut under your vehicle, but that is very uncommon.
The epidemic of thefts has prompted state and municipal governments throughout the country to act. In the past two years, several cities and states have proposed and enacted new laws or amended current ones to help combat theft, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Houston’s city council passed an ordinance in 2022 that requires metal recyclers to check more identification from mechanic shops and individuals, such as a business or driver’s license as well as the car’s VIN. The law came alongside community education programs to allow the secondary market to catch up, says Carson.
Based on preliminary data provided by the Houston Police Department, these initiatives seem to be working. Last year, the city saw 9,637 reported thefts, a jump from 2021’s 7,822 thefts, and 2020’s 1,793. Projected rates for 2023 hover around 4,000 reported thefts. (January and February had fewer than 700 thefts combined.) The Texas State Legislature is also looking to make catalytic converter theft a felony.
Should your converter get stolen, it’s advisable to contact your local police department and insurance company right away. Making a report will help give lawmakers and law enforcement a clearer picture of what’s going on in your area, and your insurance may be able to cover the cost of the stolen converter.
As for replacing your converter or the whole vehicle, that’s up to you. An older car might have a long wait time for a replacement part and the vehicle’s value may be less than the repair. States that don’t have as strict pollution or aftermarket part regulations may have a shorter wait period for a new converter. When looking for a professional, be sure to call at least three mechanics to price check, says Handley. She urges customers to also get a shield installed immediately after a theft.
“There is absolutely no regulation on automotive pricing,” Handley says. “At all. There can be two shops in the same parking lot and they will charge you different prices for the same thing.”
In the meantime, stay vigilant. We’ll see if the flurry of legislation and growing awareness begin reversing the nationwide trend.
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Why more catalytic converters are being stolen than ever before? ›
At first glance, catalytic converters seem like a weirdly specific part to steal. But there's a reason for that — they're rich in precious metals, such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium.Why is there an increase in catalytic converter theft? ›
154) Catalytic converters are being stolen at increasingly higher rates due to their valuable metals, such as rhodium, platinum and palladium.Why is catalytic converter theft so rampant? ›
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), catalytic converter theft has spiked dramatically due to three precious metals found inside them: palladium, rhodium, and platinum. How precious are we talking about here? At the time of this writing, an ounce of rhodium costs about $8000.Why have thefts of catalytic converters increased dramatically in the last few years? ›
The Los Angeles Police Department reported a 300% increase in catalytic converter theft since the beginning of the pandemic. The National Insurance Crime Bureau speculates that the uptick in reported thefts is linked to the increase in the value and price of the precious metals in catalytic converters.Are newer cars harder to steal catalytic converters? ›
Newer models with the converter in the engine, such as Honda's Accord, are less targeted for catalytic converter theft because the converter is more difficult to access and take out without damaging the engine.What prevents catalytic converter theft? ›
Park in well-lit areas close to public entrances, regularly move your car's spot or use a closed garage. Install an anti-theft device. Install motion-sensitive lights and cameras in your parking area. Paint your catalytic converter to deter buyers – some local police departments even offer free programs for painting.Can a car run without a catalytic converter? ›
Can you drive without a catalytic converter? Yes, you could temporarily drive without a catalytic converter, and it won't damage a modern car or engine. But in the long run, it'll emit harmful gas, sacrifice your car's engine performance and fuel economy, and possibly get you in trouble with the law.Who is behind catalytic converter theft? ›
Over the course of the conspiracy, defendant Tyler James Curtis received over $13 million in wired funds from DG Auto for the shipment of catalytic converters and received over $500,000 from Capital Cores for catalytic converters. Defendant Adam G. Sharkey received over $45 million in wired funds from DG Auto.Does painting catalytic converter prevent theft? ›
By adding bright paint, you can create a visible deterrent to alert thieves to move on. This paint also signals law enforcement and recyclers to look deeper for serial numbers or identification marks. By clearly marking your catalytic converter you will be deterring the theft from happening in the first place.What states have the most catalytic converters stolen? ›
Insurance company ranks California with highest catalytic...
- California - 10577.
- Texas - 5867.
- Illinois - 3299.
- Washington - 2390.
- Minnesota - 1976.
- Oregon - 1643.
- Ohio - 1494.
- Pennsylvania - 1363.
How much gold is in a catalytic converter? ›
Catalytic converters contain Platinum, Rhodium and Palladium. However, there is no gold in catalytic converters.What vehicles have no catalytic converters? ›
In fact, this is the only group of cars that don't need catalytic converters: electric vehicles (EVs). Electric vehicles are powered by an electric battery. As a result, there's no internal combustion happening in the engine. This means that they don't produce any emissions, which makes them completely emissions-free.What cars have the most expensive catalytic converters? ›
- Ferrari F430 ($3,770) ...
- Lamborghini Aventador ($3,120) ...
- Ram 2500 ($3,460) ...
- Ford F-250 ($2,800) ...
- Ford Mustang ($1,500) ...
- Know if you're a target. ...
- Use an anti-theft device. ...
- Install alarms and cameras.
Check Engine Warning
The first time that you start your automobile after the catalytic converter has been stolen the check engine light will turn on. It will remain on until you replace the catalytic converter and repair any exhaust system damage.
American cars such as Jeep, Chrysler, Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet are least likely to be targeted as they have less valuable converters. Nissan, Mazda, Subaru, and Hyundai also limit the amount of precious metals used in the converter designs.Are car manufacturers doing anything to prevent catalytic converter theft? ›
What is happening to the current designs of catalytic converters? Decades of research have helped manufacturers use less precious metals in their design and have made them less susceptible to theft. Since the early 2000s, manufacturers have moved the location of the converters closer to the engine.Will car alarm go off if catalytic converter is stolen? ›
Stealing a catalytic converter requires a thief to use a jack, which instantly sets off tilt-activated car alarms.How can I tell if my catalytic converter has been stolen? ›
You can see damage or missing parts under your vehicle.
If the catalytic converter is gone, you'll see an empty space and exposed sections of the exhaust line. Thieves usually steal catalytic converters by cutting them out, so you'll see saw marks and probably other damage along the exhaust line.
If you want to use something instead of a catalytic converter, you can use a straight pipe—but you should not remove your catalytic converter to stay street legal. You can use a straight pipe but you will fail smog checks and emissions testing.What does a car sound like without catalytic converter? ›
You'll notice a loud rumbling or roaring sound when you turn on the engine if your catalytic converter is missing. This sound gets louder when you hit the gas. The exhaust is not working correctly, so the vehicle also drives rougher than usual, often with a sense of sputtering as you change speed.
What is government doing about catalytic converter theft? ›
CA is taking action to stop catalytic converter theft by requiring recyclers to keep specific records & only allowing used catalytic converters to be sold by authorized parties. Catalytic converters, affixed underneath cars, are used to convert toxic exhaust from an engine into less harmful gas.What are thieves after when they steal catalytic converters? ›
How Much is a Stolen Catalytic Converter Worth? Big money is the main motivation for catalytic converter thieves. According to Mining Technology News, platinum, palladium, and rhodium are among the most expensive mined materials.What do thieves do with stolen catalytic? ›
Catalytic converters contain metals that are more precious than gold, such as platinum, rhodium and palladium. When stolen, thieves take the part to a scrap yard or recycler in exchange for cash.How can I protect my catalytic converter DIY? ›
The protection involves U-bolt exhaust clamps and cold weld epoxy, both items you can get at an automotive store. The idea is to put the stainless steel clamps around the pipe at the front or back end of the catalytic converter, making it much more difficult for a thief to cut it off.Do catalytic converter shields work? ›
In short, catalytic converter shields work and protect your vehicle. High-quality converter protection devices like Cat Shield™ by Miller Cat make it difficult for thieves to cut through.How much is a Toyota Camry catalytic converter worth in scrap? ›
The actual value you get for your Toyota catalytic converter depends on your car model and the size and weight of the catalytic converter, and the price can range from $75 to $700 when sold as scrap.Why are catalytic converters painted pink? ›
Volunteers painted the catalytic converters of fifty cars a neon pink to make the exhaust system part less desirable to thieves.Are there anti theft devices for catalytic converters? ›
The CatClamp® was invented to prevent thieves from stealing your catalytic converter. It's exclusive, award-winning, patented cable cage design surrounds the catalytic converter with aircraft-grade wire rope that is very difficult to cut, even with power tools.What is the average value of a stolen catalytic converter? ›
Catalytic converter thieves can see returns of around $150 to $1500 for a catalytic converter, depending on the type of catalytic converter stolen. Scrap yards will buy them and have their metals recovered to sell again. Their location on the underside of vehicles can make them convenient to steal quickly.What city has the most catalytic converter theft? ›
California ranks number one for catalytic converter thefts, and the vehicle most targeted is the Toyota Prius. That's leading to shortages in replacement parts. In the city of Los Angeles in 2018, 972 catalytic converters were reported stolen. In 2022, 8,000 catalytic converters were reported stolen.
How much is a stolen catalytic worth? ›
How Much Is A Stolen Catalytic Converter Worth? The value of a stolen catalytic converter depends strongly on the type of vehicle it's from and the year of production. In general, a reseller might pay anywhere between $50 to $550 for a catalytic converter, but in some cases, it might be even more: up to $1000.How long does it take catalytic converter cleaner to work? ›
Dump all the bottle's contents into your fuel tank. This is the same place where you would put gas. Step 2: Drive your vehicle for at least 15 minutes to allow the Cataclean to get into your vehicle's parts. Step 3: If you have error codes on your on-board computer (OBDII), clear them after you've driven the vehicle.How long do catalytic converters last? ›
A new catalytic converter should last for around 10 years but, as with most other vehicle components, the exact lifespan can differ. Mileage and engine tune can impact on the durability of the item, so it's worth checking the condition after 50,000 miles.Where is rhodium found in scrap? ›
It is one of the platinum group metals. And Rhodium is rare, obtained in very small quantities as a byproduct of platinum and nickel mining, principally in Canada and Russia. Because it is so rare in nature and so difficult to obtain, it is in great demand from sources that include jewelry and catalysts.What is rhodium worth? ›
|Rhodium Spot Price||Spot Change|
|Rhodium Price per Ounce||$7,000.00||0%|
|Rhodium Price per Gram||$225.06||0%|
|Rhodium Price per Kilo||$225,055.23||0%|
Mainly because of the precious metals that are included in the converter, such as platinum, or platinum-like material such as palladium or rhodium. So, the more expensive the material, the more expensive it is to replace. You might be wondering why it needs to be made of such an expensive material.What year did they stop putting catalytic converters in cars? ›
Types of Catalytic Converters
Two-way: The two-way catalytic converter was present on vehicles in the United States until 1981. They only have oxidation catalysts, which help change carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide. Hydrocarbons (which is unburned and partially burned fuel) are changed to carbon dioxide and water.
The Benefits of Driving An Electric Car
There is no catalytic converter in electric cars because there's no need to remove toxic pollutants from the vehicle.
Urgent warning to electric car drivers as thieves target motors while they're charging – don't get caught out. ELECTRIC car drivers are being warned about the increasing risk of charger thefts – with replacements costing hundreds of pounds.How do I keep my catalytic converter from being stolen? ›
Park in well-lit areas close to public entrances, regularly move your car's spot or use a closed garage. Install an anti-theft device. Install motion-sensitive lights and cameras in your parking area. Paint your catalytic converter to deter buyers – some local police departments even offer free programs for painting.
Which catalytic converters bring the most in scrap? ›
Most Targeted Cars For Catalytic Converter Thefts
The Ferrari F430, Ford Mustang, and Ford F250 are constant targets for thieves. Why? These cars have a higher scrap catalytic converter price compared to other standard vehicles, like the Chevrolet Impala from General Motors.
The recent scrap price for the GD3+EA6 catalytic converter used in the 2004-09 second-generation Prius 1.5 was $1,022, according to marketplace website AutoCatalystMarket.com, while the scrap price for the GP1+TB1 converter used in the 2010-15 third-generation Prius was $548.Do newer cars have catalytic converters stolen? ›
They have been a federally mandated requirement on every new vehicle since 1975. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), catalytic converter theft has spiked dramatically due to three precious metals found inside them: palladium, rhodium, and platinum.What happens if I drive with a bad catalytic converter? ›
Driving with a bad catalytic converter has drawbacks, like lower fuel economy and frequent stalling. You could also receive a ticket or fine and fail an emissions test.Can you drive a car with a catalytic converter? ›
A Catalytic Converter Can Be Driven Indefinitely
Driving with a bad catalytic converter is not too dangerous. If some small parts of your catalytic converter is plugged, you can still drive your car as usual.
With those increased prices and the limited supplies of these precious metals, theft of catalytic converters has become a large problem in recent years. There are certain vehicles that have higher concentrations of precious metals or dual converters that contribute to an even higher cost.What is the leading cause of catalytic converter failure? ›
The most common reason for a catalytic converter to fail is because a related part fails — most often, a faulty spark plug. (Bad plugs can cause unburned gas to overheat inside the catalytic converter.)How much is a stolen catalytic converter worth? ›
How Much Is A Stolen Catalytic Converter Worth? The value of a stolen catalytic converter depends strongly on the type of vehicle it's from and the year of production. In general, a reseller might pay anywhere between $50 to $550 for a catalytic converter, but in some cases, it might be even more: up to $1000.Are car manufacturers doing anything about catalytic converter theft? ›
What is happening to the current designs of catalytic converters? Decades of research have helped manufacturers use less precious metals in their design and have made them less susceptible to theft. Since the early 2000s, manufacturers have moved the location of the converters closer to the engine.What are 2 symptoms of a failed catalytic converter? ›
Driving with A Failed Catalytic Converter
If you're noticing slow powertrain performance, reduced acceleration, a smell of rotten eggs or sulfur from the exhaust, dark exhaust smoke, or extreme heat from under the vehicle, these are symptoms of a clogged Catalytic Converter, and it should be replaced quickly.
How many miles does a catalytic converter last? ›
The average catalytic converter is designed to last about 100,000 miles, so if your car is nearing six figures on the odometer, chances are you need to give some thought to your catalytic converter.What vehicle has the most expensive catalytic converter? ›
According to data from 2020, the most expensive catalytic converter belonged to the Ferrari F430, with a mind-popping $3,770.00 price tag. Moreover, the F430 needed two of them, so a full replacement would run car owners $7,540 before labor costs.