With catalytic converter thefts on the rise, some tips for vehicle owners

Thieves steal catalytic converters for the precious metals they contain. (Wikipedia photo)

Many vehicle owners have reported experiencing a similar situation: After parking overnight they go outside to start their car or truck in the morning – and it suddenly makes a very loud noise. They then discover its catalytic converter has been stolen and find themselves facing costly repairs to replace the part. The crime has increasingly been a problem both locally and nationwide.

The catalytic converter is an emission control device on vehicles that converts toxic gases and harmful pollutants into less harmful emissions before they leave the exhaust system. Beginning in 1975 the part was equipped on cars and trucks in the U.S. to comply with Environmental Protection Agency exhaust emission regulations.

Catalytic converters contain precious metals such as platinum, palladium, rhodium or gold, which are used as the catalyst to convert toxins and pollutants in vehicle exhaust. Due to those materials they are a target for thieves. Depending on which metal was used, thieves can sell the converters to metal recyclers, who then extract the precious metals and resell them.

“Catalytic converter theft ebbs and flows with the fluctuation of the recycled metal value,” Mountlake Terrace Police Commander Mike Haynes said. “In other words, the increase in the number of catalytic converter thefts in Mountlake Terrace and regionally is directly related to the increased value of the metals found in converters.”

According to Haynes, the value of those precious metals most recently went up in 2019 where it has remained constant. As a result, police have seen an increased number of catalytic converter thefts reported during the last three years.

The part can be stolen from any car or truck, but the vehicle of choice among thieves is often a Toyota Prius or Honda Element. Ultra-low-emission vehicles, such as the Prius, have a catalytic converter that contains more of the precious materials for converting the harmful toxins and pollutants into less dangerous exhaust.

Vehicles that are higher off the ground, such as trucks, SUVs and RVs or buses, are appealing to criminals because the thieves can more easily fit underneath to cut the catalytic converter off in a short amount of time. In addition, bigger vehicles such as box vans and commercial trucks also require a bigger catalytic converter, containing more of the precious metals, which make them attractive targets for thieves.

Thieves often use a battery-powered reciprocating saw to quickly remove the part, which can produce a sharp metallic noise, once they have access to the vehicle’s underside. The crime is usually one of opportunity which happens in a matter of minutes or less at night while under the cover of darkness.

“The best advice I can give to minimize the risk of being the victim of a crime, in this case the theft of parts from your vehicle, is to be proactive in taking advantage of available safety and security measures,” Haynes said. “Engraving your VIN (vehicle identification number) is an option; however, I suspect thieves would simply grind it off.”

Other measures police say vehicle owners may consider include:

  • Park in a garage if available or a location where lighting is satisfactory
  • Utilize an alarm system
  • Make sure that any home surveillance system is working
  • Call 911 to report suspicious persons or activity
  • Be aware of people who may be acting as a lookout.
  • Suspects will often say they are working on their car, but police note that using a saw of any type is not normal car behavior.
  • There are various devices available specifically to make catalytic converter removal more difficult, thus minimizing the likelihood of theft

Haynes added that vehicle owners can also “appeal to elected officials to enact legislation making the theft of catalytic converters less appealing. That “ultimately would require increased regulation of the scrap metal processors who are purchasing them,” he added.

Dan Fast Muffler and Brake General Manager Jay O’Neill said he typically sees at his Lynnwood location “anywhere between three and 10-12 (vehicles) a day” needing a stolen catalytic converter replaced. “I’ve got seven of them here right now,” he noted.

Costs vary depending on factors such as the vehicle’s make, model and the extent of damages thieves caused when cutting the part out, O’Neill said, but can range from approximately $800-$2,800 including parts and labor.

Comprehensive insurance policies cover stolen auto parts minus the deductible amount, so vehicle owners with full coverage who are victims of catalytic converter theft may want to contact their insurance company about replacement.

Driving a vehicle missing the catalytic converter can make it loud enough to possibly be in violation of noise ordinances. It also, O’Neill said, “can most definitely cause further damage, up to and including blowing up your engine.”

When it comes to selling the part to scrap metal recyclers for its precious metals inside, “We do have pretty stringent laws here in Washington about who can take in catalytic converters, who can’t, and what the proper documentation that you have to have is,” O’Neill said. But, he added, “What I have heard is that these guys (thieves and/or less reputable buyers) are loading them up into shipping containers and shipping them out of state, they’re shipping them overseas, to places that have less stringent laws about recycling catalytic converters.”

O’Neill said that while there are a variety of after-market devices to help protect the part from being stolen, he typically recommends to customers the cat security shield, which is a metal plate available for select makes and models including the Toyota Prius and Honda Element. “Above and beyond that, some vehicles we can actually fabricate cages to go around them (catalytic converters),” although he added that isn’t possible with some vehicles due to space constraints.

Besides metal plate shields or cages, other anti-theft implements available online include physical locks or clamps, which often contain aircraft-grade steel cables and can fit many different makes and models of vehicles, and also sonic alarms that activate a loud siren noise after sensing someone is beneath the automobile or trying to remove the catalytic converter. Many of these types of devices even claim they are easy to install at home, depending on mechanical skills, and also require no special tools. Purchase prices for the various anti-theft apparatuses can range from approximately $150 to more than $900 for large commercial vehicles.

Cutaway of a metal-core catalytic converter. (Wikipedia photo)

— Nathan Blackwell

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