The Department of Justice recently busted a major catalytic converter ring involving at least 21 people and more than $500 million in illegal sales. The group of thieves and fraudsters bought stolen catalytic converters and shipped them to metal refineries that were able to extract valuable materials such as platinum and rhodium from the car parts.
High heavy metal prices have led to an explosion of these thefts in the past few years, and since nearly all cars are equipped with a catalytic converter, nearly everyone is at risk. That’s why we spoke to auto experts to find out everything you need to know about catalytic converters.
What Is a Catalytic Converter?
A catalytic converter is the part of a vehicle’s exhaust system that transforms toxic gases into less-harmful pollutants through a chemical reaction. You can find the oblong, metal part connected to a car’s tailpipe on the underside of the car. While your car can run without a catalytic converter, it will be loud and inefficient without it. Removing a catalytic converter is also illegal, as it’s required to comply with federal emissions regulations.
Why Do People Steal Catalytic Converters?
Catalytic converters contain the precious metals platinum, palladium, and rhodium, all of which can be sold for thousands of dollars an ounce. The number of catalytic converter thefts has skyrocketed to 14,443 in 2020 from 1,298 in 2018 — a more than 1,000% increase. The spike in thefts corresponds with a rise in heavy metal prices, which have increased because of supply chain issues in South Africa and Russia. “As much as a lot of things that happen in life, it’s supply and demand,” said David Bennett, AAA's manager of repair systems.
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Which Cars Are Targeted for Catalytic Converters?
All vehicles with internal combustion engines have catalytic converters, so most cars are at risk for theft. That said, some makes and models are targeted more than others — hybrids, for example, have catalytic converters that contain more metal and are therefore more desirable. Cars with high ground clearance such as SUVs are also at risk, as it’s easier for thieves to get under the car and steal the catalytic converter. Some thieves can steal the part in less than a minute.
According to Carfax data, these are the most targeted cars nationwide:
- 1985-2021 Ford F-Series
- 1989-2020 Honda Accord
- 2007-17 Jeep Patriot
- 1990-2022 Ford Econoline
- 1999-2021 Chevrolet Silverado
- 2005-21 Chevrolet Equinox
- 1997-2020 Honda CR-V
- 1987-2019 Toyota Camry
- 2011-17 Chrysler 200
- 2001-21 Toyota Prius
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How Can I Prevent Catalytic Converter Theft?
According to Bennett, the best thing you can do to prevent catalytic converter theft is to make your car as unappealing to thieves as possible. That means parking inside a garage, near cameras, or in a well-lit area. If you have to park on the street, do so where there’s foot traffic. “Make [your car] as visible as possible,” Bennett explains.
There are also many do-it-yourself solutions and third-party products designed to deter thieves. Some experts recommend installing a catalytic converter cage or shield, some of which you can attach at home with new bolts and fasteners. Other models require a visit to the shop. While these metal cages aren’t impregnable, they’ll discourage most thieves from targeting your vehicle.
You can also spray paint your catalytic converter and etch your Vehicle Identification Number on the part, which could make it more difficult for thieves to sell. The problem with this solution, Bennett said, is that thieves who work in the dark might not notice the VIN until after they’ve sawed through it.
A motion-activated dash cam or sensitive car alarm may also deter thieves — or at the very least help you catch them.
- Park your car in a locked garage or a well-lit, heavily trafficked area.
- Install a catalytic converter cage or shield.
- Spray paint your catalytic converter and etch your VIN into the part.
- Place a motion-activated camera in your car.
- Make your car alarm more sensitive.
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What Should I Do if My Catalytic Converter Is Stolen?
If someone steals your catalytic converter, you'll know, Bennett said. Not only will your fuel economy drop, but your car will be louder and your check-engine light will turn on. Beyond contacting law enforcement, you should replace your catalytic converter as soon as possible; Bennett recommends getting towed to the nearest repair facility
You should also contact your insurance company. If you have comprehensive coverage, your insurer will likely cover the replacement costs, which start at around $1,000.