A Closer Look At The Skyrocketing Catalytic Converter Thefts

Car Culture / Comments

It's like another pandemic out there.

You've seen it on the news, in the headlines on the internet, and people reporting catalytic converter thefts on social media community groups.

It's something that's getting out of hand to the point that new regulations have been passed about the sales of used catalytic converters. But people have questions like "What is a catalytic converter? Does my car have a catalytic converter? Why do people steal catalytic converters? And how do I protect my catalytic converter?"

We will do our best to answer all the questions we've been asked lately and help people protect their cars. This is everything you need to know about catalytic converter theft, including which cars are least likely to have catalytic converters stolen.


What Is A Catalytic Converter?

A catalytic converter is part of the exhaust system in modern cars. It's a vital part of the emissions control system that reduces the pollution coming out of the tailpipe.

The converter takes harmful hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides to turn into oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. If you look under your car, the catalytic converter looks much like a muffler but is further up the exhaust system near the engine.

A catalytic converter lasts at least ten years and often much longer, so it's not something most car owners need to deal with constantly.


Why Are Catalytic Converters Valuable?

The catalysts that cause the chemical reaction to convert those gases into less harmful ones include palladium, rhodium, and platinum. These rare-earth metals, mainly mined in South Africa and Russia, are valuable. With the war in Ukraine going on and general supply chain issues, the costs of those metals have risen dramatically. So, who buys stolen catalytic converters? That's where recycling companies and scrap yards come into the story.

The majority don't want to touch stolen goods, but there are enough that do to make stealing catalytic converters worthwhile. How worthwhile? They can be sold for anywhere between $50 and $500, depending on the converters they are. Some also unwittingly buy stolen cats, but the real problem is that cost is passed on to the victim. On average, replacement catalytic converters cost between $800 and $1,200, while some large trucks can cost over $3,000 to get back on the road.


Which Cars Are Least Likely To Have A Catalytic Converter Stolen?

The least likely cars to have catalytic converters stolen are cars with small and efficient engines. The most heavily targeted vehicles are trucks, with the Ford F-150 at the top of the list nationwide. Part of the reason why is that they are tall vehicles and so are easy to get underneath to cut the catalytic converter out of the exhaust system. The most targeted car is the Toyota Prius, followed by other hybrids as they use more metals to deal with hotter exhaust gasses than engines that run solely on gas. Pretty much any car is up for grabs for criminals desperate for money. If you're wondering about cars without catalytic converters, unless it was built before 1975 when the national laws came into effect, it has one.

In general, the hardest cars to steal a catalytic converter from are regular passenger cars and low-riding sports cars. To get at the exhaust, they need to be lifted by a jack. Some newer cars now have their catalytic converters in the engine compartment, which makes them very difficult to steal. Some cars also use something called a bead cat, which uses porous beads and isn't worth anywhere near as much as a regular converter.

Front Angle View Ford

How To Know If Your Catalytic Converter Is Stolen?

The first clue to a catalytic converter being stolen is usually a loud one. Thieves cut the exhaust either side of the catalytic converter, so the exhaust gasses don't make it to the muffler. If the engine gets loud and you look in the mirror and see puffs or clouds of smoke, then your catalytic converter is likely gone and it's time to be angry. You'll likely wonder "does insurance cover catalytic converter theft?" Thankfully, if you have comprehensive coverage, it typically is. If you're wondering how long can you drive without a catalytic converter, the answer is that legally, you can't. All road vehicles in the US have to have all their factory emissions equipment fitted. In practical terms, you can drive without one as long as you can bear the noise and smell, or until a cop hears it or sees the smoke and decides to pull you over.


How To Protect Your Catalytic Converter

To reduce the chances of a catalytic converter being stolen, the usual care and attention to security apply. Ideally, park the car inside a garage a night, and if the car has to be parked in the street, try and make sure it's in a well-lit spot. The vast majority of car crime is committed at night, so a well-lit and easy to observe spot is best to put off thieves. Unfortunately, like all security, you won't stop the most determined of thieves, but the longer it takes to perform the act of committing a crime, the more worried they will get about being caught. Fitting a steel shield or wire cage around the converter costs time and money, as do having steel cables welded to the catalytic converter and frame of the vehicle.

The trick most likely to make a thief think twice is to paint the catalytic converter with high-temperature fluorescent paint, such as the paint used for barbecue grills, and then scratch the VIN number of the car into the paint and metal. With a bit of luck, the criminal will have just a touch of common sense and realize that will be harder to sell up the chain. By nature, criminals tend to avoid doing things that are difficult. It's also hard to deny the converter has just been stolen if caught with it.

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