Turns out, lightning can strike twice. Or, in Cathy Cobb’s case, it was thieves. After a day’s work, Cobb switched on her Honda Element, only to be startled by a noise that could wake the dead. The ruckus was familiar; it was the second time in less than a year that a thief had ripped apart her car’s exhaust system to steal its catalytic converter. The first time, the Honda had been in her own driveway.
Catalytic converter theft has become epidemic. Such thefts have been happening for the past six or seven years, but they’ve accelerated since 2020, says Rob McGuire, service manager of Longo Toyota in El Monte, California, California, the country’s largest Toyota dealer. California’s insurance industry says that, statewide, converter replacements increased by about 90 percent from 2019 to 2020, nearly all of them due to thefts.
Why catalytic converter theft has increased
Since the mid-1970s, nearly all gasoline-powered cars and trucks have been equipped with one or more catalytic converters, which scrub toxic gases and pollutants from the engine’s exhaust. Platinum, palladium, and rhodium—metals more precious than gold—inside the converters do the trick. Increased world demand has sent prices of these metals soaring tenfold from a decade or so ago.
Scrapyards pay a couple of hundred dollars or more for converters. In turn, they sell them to recyclers that extract the metals. Armed with little more than a wrench or a hacksaw, a thief can slither under a vehicle and unbolt or saw off a converter in just a few minutes. Pickups and SUVs like Cobb’s Element are popular targets because they sit high off the ground, making it easier for the thief.
The car most prone to theft
Toyota Prius converters seem to be the most favored because they’re relatively easy to remove and carry hefty amounts of precious metals. Moreover, the metals degrade less because the hybrid’s gasoline engine doesn’t run continuously.
Replacing a catalytic converter isn’t cheap. A Prius converter might cost between $1,500 and $4,000, depending how much damage the thief inflicts on the exhaust system’s pipes and sensors, McGuire says. And it’s generated a lot of business for repair shops.
How to prevent catalytic converter theft
What’s a car owner to do to discourage thieves from swiping a converter? Make it harder for them to get at it. Converter-protection devices, such as Cat Shield and Cat Security, have been developed for the Prius and other vehicles targeted by thieves. Depending on the vehicle, the shields cost $140 to $340, plus installation, which takes about an hour.
An internet search turns up a variety of other protective devices, as well. For example, for many vehicles, muffler shops can bend and weld rebar to form a cage around the converter.
Fortunately, Cobb carries comprehensive insurance on her Honda that covers replacement converters—although she had to pay out-of-pocket deductibles. And even though she purchased a protective shield for her latest converter, she’s now extra vigilant, making sure she parks her beloved Honda in her garage.