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How to prevent catalytic converter theft

Catalytic converter A part of a car's exhaust system, catalytic converters use precious metals to scrub toxic gases and pollutants from an engine’s exhaust. Photo by Cultura Creative Ltd./Alamy Stock Photo

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 an epidemic. From 2008 to 2015, vehicle owners reported 25,394 thefts, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). Since then, thefts have accelerated dramatically—3,389 in 2019, 14,433 in 2020, and a whopping 52,206 in 2021. These numbers reflect only thefts for which claims were filed with insurance companies, so the actual totals are almost certainly higher.

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 are a part of a car’s exhaust system. Resembling small mufflers, catalytic converters scrub toxic gases and pollutants from the engine’s exhaust using platinum, palladium, and rhodium—metals more precious than gold.

Increased world demand has sent prices of these metals soaring tenfold from a decade or so ago. In early March 2022, rhodium was valued at about $20,000 an ounce, palladium at about $2,900 an ounce, and platinum at about $1,100 an ounce.

Catalytic converter being removed

Thieves can remove a catalytic converter in minutes armed with nothing else but a wrench or a saw. Depending on the target, they don’t even need a jack to raise the car to get underneath it. Photo by Chaiyasit/stock.adobe.com

Armed with little more than a wrench or a hacksaw, a thief can slither under a vehicle and remove a converter in just a few minutes. Pickups and SUVs like Cobb’s Element are popular targets because they sit higher off the ground, making it easier for thieves to get to the converter.

Scrapyards typically pay a couple of hundred dollars or more for converters. Some converters from hybrid vehicles can fetch as much as $1,400 because they contain more precious metals and they degrade less because the hybrid’s gasoline engine doesn’t run continuously. In turn, scrapyards sell converters to recyclers, which extract the metals.

Catalytic converter replacement has generated a lot of business for repair shops. Replacing a converter isn’t cheap, running anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on the vehicle and on how much damage a thief inflicts on the exhaust system’s pipes and sensors.

More than 35 U.S. states have proposed or enacted legislation to address catalytic converter theft. The thrust of much of the legislation would make it harder to dispose of a stolen catalytic converter, thus making the crime less attractive.

For example, some laws require scrap dealers to keep detailed records of purchases, including the names and driver’s license numbers of the sellers, the VIN numbers of the cars the converter came from, the license plate of the vehicle that brought in the part, a photo of the seller, and so on. Some laws presume that sellers who cannot provide this kind of information are in possession of a stolen part.

Although such laws are well-intended and may prove useful in identifying thieves, for a vehicle owner whose catalytic converter has been pilfered, it’s a little like locking the garage door after the car has been stolen, to paraphrase an old saying. Better to take the proactive measures listed below to protect your car’s catalytic converter.

How to prevent catalytic converter theft

Unfortunately, catalytic converters are likely to be stolen from anywhere cars are parked, according to the NICB. So what’s a car owner to do to discourage thieves from swiping their converter? Make it harder for them to get at it.

Here are the best ways to prevent catalytic converter theft:

  1. If you have a garage, always park your car there rather than leaving it in the driveway.
  2. If you have a carport or parking space at your home, install motion-detector security lights and set a car alarm.
  3. During the day, when you drive to work or somewhere away from home, avoid parking in isolated areas. Instead, park your car where there’s more foot and vehicle traffic, making anyone who might be targeting your car more likely to be seen.
  4. Buy an antitheft device. Converter-protection devices, such as Cat Shield and Cat Security, have been developed for many vehicles frequently targeted by thieves. Depending on the vehicle, the shields cost $140 to $340, plus installation, which takes about an hour. For many vehicles, muffler shops can bend and weld rebar to form a cage around the converter.
  5. Etch your license plate number or VIN number on your car’s converter to make it more easily identifiable to the police.

Fortunately, Cathy Cobb’s comprehensive auto insurance policy covered replacing a stolen converter—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 always parks her beloved Honda in her garage.

Cars most prone to catalytic converter theft

Carfax has compiled lists of the most heavily targeted vehicles, based on service reports from more than 60,000 service facilities from across the country between 2019 and early 2022.

Nationwide, the models most likely to be targeted are:

  1. Ford F-Series pickups (1985–2021)
  2. Honda Accord (1989–2020)
  3. Jeep Patriot (2007–2017)
  4. Ford Econoline vans (1990–2022)
  5. Chevrolet Silverado pickups (1999–2021)
  6. Chevrolet Equinox (2005–2021)
  7. Honda CR-V (1997–2020)
  8. Toyota Camry (1987–2019)
  9. Chrysler 200 (2011–2017)
  10. Toyota Prius (2001–2021)

Carfax has also broken down the frequency of catalytic converter thefts by region of the country.

Veteran automotive journalist Peter Bohr has been writing about cars for more than 4 decades.

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