There you are one day, just minding your own business. You get in your vehicle, start it up and hear it making an awful sound like an old lawn mower with a hole in the muffler. You have a sinking feeling you already understand the problem, thanks to the recent trend of catalytic converter theft. Let’s look at why this is happening, which vehicles are at risk and what you can do to try and prevent catalytic converter theft.
What is a catalytic converter?
A catalytic converter is an emissions device attached to all modern vehicles. Starting in the mid-1970s, manufacturers were required to reduce vehicle pollution emissions by adding one or more catalytic converters to the exhaust system. As the name suggests, this device converts pollutants such as nitrogen oxides into less harmful emissions through a catalyst process.
On the outside, a catalytic converter looks like a small muffler—a simple steel cylinder. Inside, the catalytic converter has a ceramic structure coated in precious metals such as platinum and rhodium that catalyze the exhaust emissions. This internal structure’s honeycomb design maximizes the catalyst surface area. This design has dual benefits of not restricting exhaust flow while minimizing the amount of expensive catalysts required.
Catalytic converters work when heated by the engine’s exhaust. The exhaust flows through the internal structure, and the hot catalysts break down the nastiest pollutants before the gasses flow through the rest of the exhaust. Oxygen sensors monitor the exhaust emissions before and after the catalytic converter, and the computer adjusts the combustion process until the readings are aligned for maximum efficiency.
Why is your car’s catalytic converter a target for thieves?
Catalytic converters have been around since the disco era, but have seen a massive increase in theft in the past few years. Seattle reports an average of six catalytic converter thefts every day. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the city’s five blood drive vans got hit last year. The National Insurance Crime Bureau reported nearly a tenfold increase in thefts since 2018, with more than 14,000 reportedly swiped in 2020. The top five states for catalytic converter theft were California, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina and Illinois.
There’s more bad news for vehicle owners who don’t have comprehensive coverage, because they’ll be paying the full cost of the repair. Repair costs can exceed $1,700, most being the cost of the replacement part. So, why is this happening?
“There are a couple of different factors here,” said Peter Neilson, salesperson at Cat Security anti-theft devices. “One, coronavirus put a lot of people out of work or working from home. Theft shot up a lot because cars were sitting around.”
Catalytic converter theft, Neilson added, is a crime of opportunity that increases with the availability of vehicles.
“Two, the price of rhodium skyrocketed,” Neilson said. “It went close to $30,000 an ounce in the previous couple of months and has stabilized around $20,000 recently. From what I know, there has been a shortage of rhodium in other countries, and so this theft has picked up to try to fill that demand for rhodium.”
Platinum is worth more than $1,000 per ounce and palladium is getting nearly $2,800 per ounce. Even with only three to seven grams of precious metals in an average catalytic converter, that’s still a good chunk of change. A stolen catalytic converter retains a lot of its value on the used market.
A metal recycler gave an over-the-phone quote of $20 to $200 for most used catalytic converters. When asked for a quote on a 2007 Toyota Prius catalytic converter, the recycler said “significantly more,” averaging $400 to $500, depending on condition. That’s a large payday for a thief who can easily remove the device in less than one minute. The catalytic converter could be an easier steal than an entire car, with a faster and higher payoff and less risk.
Types of cars favored by catalytic converter theft
If you read news articles on catalytic converter theft, you quickly see some usual suspects. Thieves target the Toyota Prius, trucks and SUVs, all for very different reasons. Let’s look at which vehicles are targeted for catalytic converter theft.
Toyota Prius: Specifically 2009 and older models appears to be in the undesirable No. 1 position here. Even though this generation of Prius is older than the current models, it is a higher priority because the catalytic converters contain more precious metals.
“The Prius, specifically the generation two Prius, has a very high density of precious metals in the catalytic converter,” Neilson said.
Honda Element: This SUV made between 2003 and 2011 gets hit often because of a high payoff reward, plus a taller ride height, making for an easier steal versus a car. The mechanically similar Honda CRV suffers the same theft risk.
Various pickups: Everything from the Ford F-250 to the Toyota Tacoma is a likely target. Because of the increased ground clearance of pickup trucks, thieves can slide under the vehicle with a saw and skip the tedious and dangerous jack.
“It’s partially the same reason here [as the Prius],” Neilson said. “They are very dense with precious metals, but they’re also way easier to steal. If it’s high up off the ground, like SUVs and pickup trucks, those are major targets.”
Note that you shouldn’t shop for vehicles based on which cars are targeted for catalytic converter theft—just take steps to prevent catalytic converter theft.
How do you know your catalytic converter has been stolen?
If someone stole your catalytic converter, you find out quickly. Your vehicle, when missing a catalytic converter, is about as quiet as a summer action movie trailer. With the catalytic converter missing, the exhaust dumps into the open air well ahead of the muffler and resonators. Both of those components–when intact–quiet your exhaust, so your newly shortened exhaust system is going to make your Prius sound like a jet ski at full throttle.
The second clue you’ll likely notice is the “check engine” light on the dash. If the catalytic converter is missing, the O2 sensors might be missing with it, too. Or, they won’t be able to read the emissions. That triggers a “check engine” light for catalytic converter or O2 sensor problems.
There is also the visual clue. Peek under your vehicle and look toward the engine. You should see an exhaust system running completely from the engine back to the tail pipes. If there is an obviously missing section, a thief likely snatched the catalytic converter.
Finally, if you didn’t catch the first few symptoms, you find out when you fail an emissions test. It is illegal in every state to drive a vehicle on the road without factory emissions equipment or approved replacement parts.
How to protect yourself from catalytic converter theft
Because catalytic converter theft is on the rise, you might wonder what you can do to prevent catalytic converter theft. Fortunately, you have some options.
· Park in a garage. Not everyone has this option, but a garage or other secure parking space is likely to prevent thieves from even seeing or accessing your vehicle.
· Park in a well-lit area. If a garage is not available, park close to the house. Also consider adding motion-sensing exterior lighting and security cameras visible from the street.
· Install an alarm with a level sensor. When a thief attempts to steal your catalytic converter by jacking up your car, the alarm will sound, potentially scaring them off.
· Install a catalytic converter security device. These plates and cable systems offer a visual deterrent by letting thieves know it will probably take too long to steal your vehicle’s catalytic converter. The thief sees this device and may not even bother to try, hoping for easier unprotected pickings elsewhere.