Copper piping and aluminum siding are a target of material thieves because of the metal’s value. 

Now, the rising price of precious metals has contributed to a rash of catalytic converter thefts as criminals try to cash in at scrap yards across the country.

The soaring rate of catalytic converter theft is alarming law enforcement.  The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) issued a report in March documenting 1,200 average thefts per month in 2020.  This is up from an average of 108 thefts per month in 2018.  The automotive publication Kelly Blue Book reported that the background check firm BeenVerified found 14,433 catalytic converter thefts in 2020, up from 3,389 in 2019.  More alarming, however, is that there were 25,969 such thefts in the first five month of 2021 alone.  

A catalytic converter (often called a “cat” for short) is the device used to clean automotive exhaust before it goes into the atmosphere.  It is located between the engine and the muffler and is about the size of a toaster.  Hot exhaust gasses feed into the catalytic converter where they go through a honeycomb of rare metals, scrubbing the harmful substances out of the gasses with chemical reactions. 

Platinum, palladium and rhodium are among the metals used in catalytic converters.  The prices of these metals have spiked recently due in part to supply chain problems caused by the pandemic.  The Kelly Blue Book summary reported that palladium, which sold for about $500 per ounce in 2016, is now going for more than $2,000 per ounce.  Rhodium which was $640 an ounce in 2016, is now more than $10,000 per ounce today.  These precious metals are encased in a steel or stainless steel case and may also include copper, nickel, cerium, iron and manganese.  Insurance experts and safety authorities say cutbacks on law enforcement, the economic problems of inflation and unemployment, and the price of precious metals have all combined to create this epidemic of catalytic converter theft.  Toyota Priuses, Honda vans, pickup trucks and SUVs are among those stolen most often.  This is because the size, precious metals used, or likely condition of precious metals make these catalytic converters more valuable.    

 A stolen catalytic converter can be sold for several hundred dollars on the black market, and it takes no more than five minutes to crawl under a vehicle and steal it.  A survey of local news from around the country details the extent of this activity.  In early October, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that the police department found a stockpile of “several hundred” stolen catalytic converters in the back of a box truck in Houston.  The paper reports gun and knife violence resulting from authorities trying to halt in-progress catalytic converter theft.  The Washington Post also reported in October that the drastic increase in these crimes has inspired police and local mechanics to cooperate in what they call an “Etch and Catch” program. Through this program, police and local mechanics team up to paint tag numbers on catalytic converters so police can track them if stolen.  Most comprehensive auto insurance will cover replacing and repairing damage from a catalytic converter theft, which can cost on average between $1,000 and $2,000.      

States and municipalities around the country are considering new laws and regulations to deter this rising crime.  According to the Washington Post story, a new Ohio bill would ban catalytic converter sales if there is not proof of ownership. This summer, authorities in Torrance, California, completed a three-month investigation of catalytic converter theft that resulted in the arrest of 30 people, according to a July NBC news report. 

Given the dramatic increase in these thefts, law enforcement, security and automotive experts have made the following recommendations to help prevent theft of catalytic converters.     

  • Park your car in a garage at night, if possible, where thieves can’t get to it.
  • If you must leave your car outside overnight, try to leave it in a very well-lit area.
  • If you have an SUV, try to park close to sedans, which are lower to the ground.  This will make it harder for thieves to crawl under your SUV.
  • Install a “cat shield” under your car to protect your catalytic converter.  There are a few versions of this protective device on the market.  They are mounted on the under carriage of a vehicle to cover the catalytic converter and prevent it from being sawed off. 
  • Engrave your vehicle identification number (VIN) or tag number on your cat so if it is stolen it can be traced.

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