Catalytic converter thefts plague car owners, service bays bog down and hit insurance companies

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The number of catalytic converters snatched from vehicles continues to rise, with the number of thefts skyrocketing in recent years, according to insurance companies, police departments and auto service centers.

The devices are used to catalyze, or chemically convert harmful exhaust gases such as hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide from a car’s gasoline engine. The heat in the exhaust stream activates the process. Thieves target emitting devices for the small amounts of precious metals inside, which typically include platinum, palladium, and rhodium. Thieves often take stolen converters and resell them to metal recyclers, sometimes fetching over $1,000 in cash depending on the converter. The metal recycler can then break down the devices and harvest the rare materials and sell them for a profit.

Some cars and trucks use multiple converters; electric vehicles, as you might expect, don’t use them, while hybrids still do – and converters for some Toyota Prius hybrids are highly sought after due to the greater amount of precious metals used in vehicles eco-responsible, according to police statistics nationwide.

Thieves were captured on surveillance cameras stealing the devices within minutes and, once caught, fighting and gunfire sometimes followed.

Once removed by a thief, who often uses a hand-held rotary saw to cut through the exhaust plumbing, a car will often still run (usually poorly with many lights and engine warnings activated) but emit a loud exhaust roar and revealing. Replacing the device or devices, which have no moving parts, can cost thousands of dollars. Thieves usually do more damage to the car’s overall exhaust system by cutting off the converter rather than unscrewing it, which increases the cost of the repair. A Prius owner opposite this author had to replace the catalytic converter in his Prius to the tune of $3,500, which his insurance covered minus the deductible, which was $1,000. A few months later it was stolen again.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, only 1,298 thefts were reported in 2018. But by 2020, the number had skyrocketed to 14,433 cases. NICB officials believe the 2021 figures will again show a sharp increase in thefts. The wave of catalytic converter thefts has resulted in financial losses for consumers, insurance companies and long waits at auto service centers, already hard hit by shortages of parts for other repairs.

The recent dramatic increase in the cost of precious metals inside devices further complicates the problem, making it even more of a target. Most people know that platinum is almost as expensive as gold at over $900 an ounce, but that figure pales in comparison to the price of palladium at over $2,000 an ounce and rhodium at an astronomical price. $16,000 an ounce. Most catalytic converters use small amounts of each, but some vehicles, including some popular pickup trucks, may have four converters in the exhaust system.

The thefts have spawned a small cottage industry of products designed to make it more difficult for the devices to be stolen, including welding metal cages or shields around them at a cost of several hundred dollars. Other anti-theft tricks include etching your car’s VIN number on the device and painting it a bright color with heat-resistant paint, which thieves will need to remove before selling the device.

The issue has also caught the attention of lawmakers, with U.S. Representative Jim Baird, R-Ind., introducing the Auto Recycling Theft Prevention Act (PART) last January. The bill would require automakers to affix vehicle VINs to new-vehicle catalytic converters, begin better keeping device records, limit cash payments and toughen penalties for those found guilty of stealing the devices. So far, the bill has not been passed.

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