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Catalytic Converter Theft is on the Rise: How to Protect Your Vehicle

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In Mountain View, CA, thieves have cut catalytic converters out of dozens of hybrid cars within the last couple of months. The story is similar in Lincoln, NE, where converter thefts are up more than 50% compared to the same time last year, according to the Lincoln Journal Star

Many vehicles have been left unattended for months due to the mandatory stay-at-home orders surrounding COVID-19. That vulnerability, combined with a hike in the cost of precious metals, is causing an increase in catalytic converter theft. 

If you own a vehicle and you do not have a secure parking spot, you may find yourself a target for these crimes. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help protect your car’s catalytic converter. 

Why Do People Steal Catalytic Converters?

The catalytic converter (also known as a cat) is an emissions control device located in your car’s exhaust system. Harmful gases from the engine flow through the cat, where they are transformed into water vapor and carbon dioxide. The result is a reduction in pollutants from the car’s tailpipe. 

Thieves are drawn to catalytic converters because these devices contain certain precious metals—which make them worth quite a bit of money. 

What Precious Metal is in a Catalytic Converter?

Catalytic converters contain precious metals rhodium, palladium, and platinum. Together, these elements act as a catalyst—a chemical that starts a reaction without undergoing any change itself. It’s this catalyst effect that transforms pollutants from the car’s engine into harmless carbon dioxide and water.  

How Much is a Catalytic Converter Worth?

All those precious metals make used catalytic converters valuable to metal recyclers. According to Rockaway Recycling, an extra-large catalytic converter from a foreign vehicle is worth between $261 and $473, while small, domestic cats can be worth around $100. 

What makes one converter worth more than another is the estimated amount of precious metals inside.

How Thieves Steal and Sell Catalytic Converters

Thieves only need simple tools to steal your catalytic converter. Typically, they will use a battery-powered cut-off tool, such as an angle grinder, to separate the cat from the exhaust pipe. Some may even use a traditional, hand-operated hack saw.

Once the perpetrator has the cat in their possession, they can sell it to a metal recycler and get quick cash.

According to DMV Recycling, each converter contains approximately 3 to 8 grams of precious metals that a smelter can extract. The metals can then go on to live second lives inside electronics, jewelry, and other sought-after products. 

Why Catalytic Converter Theft is on the Rise

Right now, catalytic converter theft is on the rise because of a jump in the price of precious metals. What’s more, stay-at-home orders have left many cars sitting unattended for months, leaving them open to catalytic converter theft. 

It’s also possible that people are getting more desperate for quick cash since, due to the pandemic, financial hardship is increasing around the world. 

Most Stolen Catalytic Converters: Which Cars are More Prone to Catalytic Converter Theft?

Although any car can be the subject of cat theft, certain types of vehicles are targeted more often than others. 

Owners of the following models should be extra cautious. 

Toyota Prius

In a hybrid car, the engine (and, therefore, the catalytic converter) doesn’t have to work as hard as it would in a traditional vehicle. As a result, there’s a better chance the cat will remain in good condition.

That’s why thieves often target the most familiar hybrid—the Toyota Prius. Crooks find versions of the car built before 2011 particularly desirable because the cat is easy to access. 

In an interview with the Los Altos Town Crier, the manager of a repair shop in Mountain View, CA, said: “Toyota is just overloaded with [cat] orders. We’ve got local shops that they’re waiting on weeks, and ourselves—we’re waiting on weeks to get parts. That’s a big burden on the customer.”

A quick Google search is all it takes to find similar stories across the United States. Even parts of Europe are battling catalytic converter theft.  

Honda Jazz

Meanwhile, in Europe, one vehicle that’s particularly enticing to thieves is the Honda Jazz. Older Jazz models have a catalytic converter that is exceptionally easy to steal. 

In an attempt to make converter theft more difficult, Honda has added a tray to the underbelly on newer versions of the car.

Trucks and SUVs

Catalytic converter thieves also target trucks and SUVs. These vehicles have a high ride height that makes it easy for a crook to slide underneath and steal the cat. 

How-to: Catalytic Converter Theft Prevention

Every modern, gas-powered car (and nearly every diesel-powered vehicle) has one or more catalytic converters that can potentially be stolen. 

The good news is that some insurance companies may cover catalytic converter theft. But because cats are so expensive, in some cases, a replacement can exceed the value of an older vehicle.

In other words, having your car’s catalytic converter stolen is a real headache. So, what can you do to prevent theft from happening?  

Build or Purchase a Product to Protect Your Cat

Have you ever heard of a device called a CatClamp? Despite sounding like (and looking like) a snare for capturing wild animals, the CatClamp is actually one of many products designed to prevent catalytic converter theft. The device locks your car’s catalytic converter in a cage made of aircraft-grade, steel wire rope. 

If you look online, you’ll also find all kinds of  DIY contraptions designed to prevent catalytic converter theft. For instance, some people are attaching homemade mesh wire nets underneath their vehicles. 

Of course, some of these cat-protection devices work better than others. If you’re thinking about strapping one to your vehicle, do your homework and read the reviews beforehand.

Other Preventive Measures You Can Take

Okay—maybe you don’t want to go as far as installing a CatClamp underneath your car. That’s alright, you can still take measures to prevent catalytic converter theft. Here are some recommendations from the Elk Grove, CA, Police Department:

It’s also worth noting that you should park your car in the garage whenever possible. An enclosed parking place is an effective defense against cat theft.

How to Tell if Your Catalytic Converter Has Been Stolen (and What to Do About it)

If your catalytic converter gets stolen—you’re going to know about it right away. With the cat gone, the exhaust system no longer reduces engine noise. 

And that makes your car really, really loud. 

The first thing you need to do when your cat gets hijacked is to file a police report. You should also contact your insurance company to see if your policy covers catalytic converter theft.

After speaking to law enforcement and your insurance carrier, you should make arrangements to replace the converter right away.

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Author

Mia Bevacqua

Chief Mechanic at CarParts.com

Mia Bevacqua is an automotive expert with over 15 years of industry experience. She holds ASE Master, L1, L2, and L3 Advanced Level Specialist certification, as well as a bachelor's degree in Advanced Automotive Systems.

Throughout her career, Mia has applied her skills toward automotive failure analysis inspections, consulting, diagnostic software development, and of course, freelance writing. Today, she writes for companies around the world, with many well-known clients showcasing her work.

Mia has a passion for math, science, and technology that motivates her to stay on top of the latest industry trends, such as electric vehicles and autonomous systems. At the same time, she has a weakness for fixer-upper oddballs, such as her 1987 Chevy Cavalier Z-24 and 1998 Chevy Astro Van AWD.

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