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Catalytic Converter Theft: What is It and How to Protect Your Car?

Michelle Wilson - October 30, 2021

catalytic converter theft what is it and how to protect your car

Car thieves don’t just steal cars; they’ve also been known to steal tires, car radios, GPS devices, speakers, and now they’re stealing catalytic converters. Although you can get by without a car radio or speakers, you can’t drive without a catalytic converter. Therefore, this theft can hit especially hard.

Unfortunately, there has been an increase in the number of catalytic car thefts lately. In fact, in Wichita, Kansas alone, there were 500 catalytic converters stolen in 2020. Experts attribute this rash of thievery to repercussions from the pandemic. For instance, the unemployment rate in the US in December 2020 was 6.7%, almost twice the pre-pandemic rate of 3.5% from February 2020.

What is a Catalytic Converter?

what is a catalytic converter

A catalytic converter is a device meant to reduce vehicle pollution emissions. These devices use a catalyst process to covert pollutants such as nitrogen oxides into less harmful emissions.

They’ve been required in cars since the mid-1970s.

The catalytic converter looks like a simple steel cylinder on the outside. However, on the inside, it has a ceramic structure coated in platinum and rhodium. It’s these precious metals that catalyze exhaust emissions. Furthermore, the internal structure has a honeycomb design that maximizes the surface area of the catalyst. As a result, exhaust flow is unrestricted, and the need for expensive catalysts is reduced.

A catalytic converter works by allowing the car’s exhaust to flow through its internal structure, where the hot catalysts break down the pollutants before the gasses can flow through the rest of the exhaust. Every converter is equipped with oxygen sensors that monitor the exhaust emissions pre and post-catalyst. The computer will then adjust the combustion process so that the readings align for maximum efficiency.

Why are Catalytic Converters a Target?

Why are Catalytic Converters a Target?

Desperate people do desperate things, and unfortunately, catalytic converters are an easy target for those who are down on their luck. Catalytic converters are readily available in every car, so they’re not hard for people to get their hands on. They also offer a lucrative payday to anyone who can heft one without being caught.

Catalytic converters are profitable because of the precious metals they contain. In the last year, the price of rhodium has skyrocketed to around $30,000 an ounce and has only recently stabilized at $20,000 an ounce. Furthermore, many countries are experiencing a rhodium shortage which has increased the demand for this metal.

Platinum and palladium are also fetching astonishingly high prices. Platinum gets more than $1000 per ounce, and palladium fetches nearly $2800 per ounce. Therefore, even though there are only three to seven grams of these precious metals per converter, this represents a good deal of money.

Additionally, a stolen catalytic converter maintains most of its value on the used market and can fetch between $20 and $200.

Cars that are Targets for Catalytic Converter Theft

Cars that are Targets for Catalytic Converter Theft

Every catalytic converter consists of valuable, precious metals that thieves are anxious to get their hands on. However, there’s a tendency for criminals to go after the converters of some vehicles more than others. There’s a number of reasons for this. Let’s explore:

The Toyota Prius

Thieves target the Toyota Prius the most because it’s a popular model and because it’s a hybrid. The popularity of this vehicle means that it’s easily recognizable. Plus, because it’s a hybrid, the gasoline-powered engine only runs half the time that a regular car does. This means that the catalytic converter doesn’t have to work as hard. Consequently, the converter remains in better shape for longer and therefore retains more of its precious metals.

The Honda Jazz, the Lexis RX, and Toyota Auris

Although the Prius is the most well-known hybrid, other models out there represent the same enticing value to thieves. These include the Honda Jazz, the Lexis RX, and the Toyota Auris.

Trucks and SUVs

The high ride height of trucks and SUVs makes it easy for thieves to get underneath to steal the catalytic converter. For this reason, these vehicles are also popular targets.

How to Find Out if Your Catalytic Converter Has Been Stolen?

How to Find Out if Your Catalytic Converter Has Been Stolen?

You’ll know right away if someone has stolen your catalytic converter. This is because, without a catalytic converter, the exhaust from your car dumps directly into the open air, ahead of the muffler and resonators. These components, when intact, reduce the sound of your exhaust. Therefore, without the converter, your vehicle will sound like a jet about to take off.

If for some reason, the sound doesn’t alert you, your dashboard will. For example, if your catalytic converter is missing, the “check engine” light will be lit up. This is because the O2 sensors may get stolen as well, or the sensors might not be able to read the emissions. As a result, the “check engine” light will get triggered.

Your next clue will be under the car. Usually, you’ll see a complete exhaust system running from the engine back to the tailpipes. However, if someone has taken your catalytic converter, it will be apparent that a piece is missing from this system.

Lastly, without a catalytic converter, you will fail your emissions tests. In every state, it’s illegal to drive a car without factory emissions equipment or approved replacement parts.

How to Prevent Catalytic Converter Theft?

How to Prevent Catalytic Converter Theft

Given that catalytic converter theft is on the rise, you may want to think about what you can do to stop it from happening to you. Fortunately, we’ve got some ideas to help you:

  • Choose a secure parking space. Instead of opting for free street parking, spend a little dough and park in a parking garage or secure lot. This will help prevent thieves from accessing your vehicle.
  • Choose a well-lit area to park. If you can’t park in a garage, try to find a space near a house or in a well-lit area or an area that has visible security cameras.
  • Install a level sensor alarm. This type of alarm sounds when your car gets lifted by a jack. As a result, thieves may be scared off.
  • Install a catalytic converter security device. The catalytic converter security device system of plates and cables won’t prevent theft, but it may deter it. This is because thieves can still steal your converter, but it will take them longer. Therefore, a thief may bypass your car for easier prey, not wanting to risk the chance of getting caught.

Conclusion

A catalytic converter helps reduce a vehicle’s emissions, and as a byproduct of that function, it also reduces the sound your car makes. Additionally, the law requires you to have one. Therefore, it’s of great value to you and to the environment. Unfortunately, however, a catalytic converter is valuable to thieves not for what it does but for what it’s made of.

Catalytic converters contain precious metals, including rhodium, palladium, and platinum. These metals fetch astonishing prices, with rhodium going for up to $20,000 an ounce, palladium $2300 an ounce, and platinum $1000 an ounce. Furthermore, used catalytic converters can bring in between $20 and $200. Generally, converters from hybrid models will result in a bigger payout because they don’t get used less than converters from non-hybrid cars. This is also why thieves most often target hybrid cars. SUVs and trucks are also prime targets for catalytic converter theft because their high-ride height makes getting underneath them easier without a jack. As a result, thieves can accomplish the theft quicker, reducing their chances of getting caught.

In general, it’s fairly obvious when one’s catalytic converter is missing. For one thing, the sound will likely bust an eardrum. For another, your check engine light will probably be on, and if these things don’t clue you in, then an “F” on your next emissions test should seal the deal.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to reduce the threat of theft. To begin with, your choice of parking space is crucial. Look for either a well-lit space near homes and/or security cameras or a protected lot or parking garage. Next, consider installing a level sensor alarm to scare off anybody who tries to jack up your vehicle, or install a catalytic converter security device to discourage thieves from even attempting to remove your converter.

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