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Catalytic converter theft is on the rise. Here’s why — and what you can do to protect yourself.
If you aren’t a car enthusiast, a catalytic converter might sound like it belongs alongside a flux capacitor in a 1981 Dolorean. Despite the elaborate name, this device is a common part in modern vehicles. In fact, your car is legally required to have one.
While these parts help reduce your car’s carbon footprint, catalytic converters are also highly sought after by car thieves. That’s because the contents within these devices are actually quite valuable. So much so that there’s been an uptick in catalytic converter thefts since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), the average number of catalytic converter thefts per month rose from 108 in 2018 to 1,203 in 2020.
Maybe you’re a recent victim of this type of vandalism. Or perhaps you want to safeguard your vehicle. Either way, we’ve outlined everything you need to know about catalytic converters.
What Is a Catalytic Converter?
A catalytic converter is a specialized filter within a vehicle’s exhaust system, particularly those with internal combustion engines. So, if your car runs on gasoline and it was produced after 1975, you should have one. That’s because catalytic converters are designed to reduce harmful emissions. How? By converting exhaust pollutants — like carbon monoxide — into less toxic gases like oxygen and nitrogen.
Considering there are roughly 285 million registered vehicles, these devices are essential. Otherwise, our air quality would deteriorate rapidly. Without getting overly sciency, catalytic converters use precious metals to create a chemical reaction. This process changes the chemical structure of an engine’s exhaust output.
Why people steal catalytic converters
So, why are these devices common targets of car thieves? Well, it’s simple: quick money.
It only takes about two minutes to take a catalytic converter. Depending on your exhaust system, the thief wouldn’t need much beyond a wrench or reciprocating saw. Once under your vehicle, they would simply unbolt or saw off your catalytic converter. Then, they’d take their stolen goods to dishonest scrap yards that are willing to overlook the source.
But it’s the metals within this car part that are truly valuable. Platinum, palladium, and rhodium are commonly used within catalytic converters. They’re usually worth more than gold. To give you an idea, there was a point in 2021 when rhodium was worth a hair under $30,000 per troy ounce. (Although prices fluctuate often.)
That said, a stolen converter won’t fetch a price anywhere near that astronomical figure. A standard catalytic converter only has a few grams of each of these metals. Still, recyclers might pay anywhere from $50 to $250 for catalytic converters. But if it comes from a hybrid vehicle, that range jumps to $800 to $1,500.
Hybrid vehicles, like the Toyota Prius, are common victims of catalytic theft because they typically have higher amounts of these precious metals. Trucks, SUVs, and other raised vehicles are also more accessible, which may make them preferred targets as well.
If you have an all-electric vehicle, your vehicle should be safe from catalytic converter thieves. (Because it doesn’t have one.) But it’s still smart to practice good car security habits.
How to Protect Your Car From Catalytic Converter Theft
Just because thefts are on the rise doesn’t mean car owners can’t do anything to protect their vehicles. It’s impossible for anyone to watch their car 24/7. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the possibility of someone stealing your car’s catalytic converter.
Park in safer areas
The more risk a thief has to take, the less likely they are to target your vehicle. For that reason, keep your car in well-lit parking areas. Or, if possible, in parking garages with security cameras. And if you have a private garage, it’s better to store your car there versus on the street. This should deter someone from approaching your vehicle in the first place.
Engrave your catalytic converter
One way to protect your catalytic converter is to engrave it with your license plate number. You’ll have to get your hands dirty and shimmy under your vehicle. But, by personalizing your device, you may make a car thief second guess their decision. That’s because it’ll be easier to track down by the police.
Install an anti-theft device
Maybe you live in a shady part of town or an area that’s experienced a spike in catalytic converter thefts. If that’s the case, you may want to consider installing an anti-theft device. These protections can cost a few hundred dollars, but that pales in comparison to the price of replacing a missing catalytic converter.
Purchase a vehicle with advanced security
Your vehicle likely has an alarm system that’s triggered by impact or vibration. If so, it should activate in the event someone tries to steal your catalytic converter. In turn, the sound alone should scare away ne’er-do-wells.
If you’re unsure about your car’s alarm system, you can check your vehicle owner’s manual for more information. However, if your current ride doesn’t have this level of protection, you may want to consider a vehicle that does possess this feature once you’re in the market for a car again.
3 Signs Your Catalytic Converter Was Stolen
Although we doubt you’re inspecting the underbelly of your vehicle each morning, it shouldn’t take long to notice a missing catalytic converter. Here are the three biggest signs that your catalytic converter was stolen.
1. Loud noises
There’s a pretty blatant red flag that your catalytic converter has been stolen: unusually loud and harsh noises upon starting up your car.
Depending on your vehicle model, your catalytic converter could be anywhere from a foot to almost four feet in size. One of your exhaust system’s jobs is to suppress the noise of your engine. So, if a vandal removes your catalytic converter, they’ll leave a major gap in between your exhaust pipe and your resonator — leading to a lot more noise.
2. Check engine light
Unless you have a vehicle that predates engine control modules (ECMs), your dashboard notifications should give you a hint that something is amiss. Your ECM is responsible for monitoring various sensors throughout your car. If this system encounters a failed test, it will promptly alert you based on the issue. In the case of a missing catalytic converter, your “check engine” alert should light up.
While other underlying problems can illuminate this dashboard icon, it’s worth inspecting regardless.
3. Failed emissions test
Depending on your vehicle and where it’s registered, you may be required to perform an annual emissions test. If you don’t have a catalytic converter, odds are slim that you’ll pass an inspection of your emission system. While this can seem like a hassle, an emissions test will expose whether you’ve been driving around sans a converter.
What to Do If Someone Steals Your Catalytic Converter
Thefts of catalytic converters are on the rise, so it wouldn’t be abnormal if it happens to you. Plus, That said, If someone damages your vehicle and steals this precious device, there are steps you should take right away.
Contact law enforcement
First and foremost, contact your local police department as soon as you realize your vehicle has been vandalized. The longer you wait, the better chance the criminals have of getting away.
If the act was caught on camera, they can more readily access these tapes and use them for their investigation. You may also need to file a police report, which could be required by your insurance company.
Contact your insurance company
After you’ve contacted the police, consider reaching out to your car insurance company. This would initiate the claim and repair process.
Although it depends on your vehicle model, replacing your catalytic converter can range between $1,000 and $3,000. Fortunately, if you have comprehensive coverage within your car insurance policy, the majority of the replacement costs should be covered. Once you pay your deductible, your policy should take care of the rest. That includes any related damage from the incident.
If you’re unsure about your policy, speak with your insurance agent.
Visit a dealership or mechanic
It’s important to have your catalytic converter replaced right away. You’ll get rid of the excessive noise and return to a smoother ride — and significantly reduce air pollution too. Plus, if your state requires annual emissions tests, you’ll need this device to pass.
It’s against federal law to tamper or remove a catalytic converter without replacing it. Although laws generally give leeway to victims of catalytic converter theft, you could still get hit with a hefty fine if you purposefully neglect to replace your converter.
Keep an Eye on Local Catalytic Converter Theft Rates
Simply garaging your vehicle when possible can reduce your exposure to catalytic converter theft. That said, it’s important to remain vigilant. Monitor your local news for any references of spikes in catalytic crime. If catalytic converter thefts start to spread in your area, you may want to take some of the extra precautions listed above. That’s especially true if you drive a hybrid vehicle.