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Catalytic Converter Theft: What You Need to Know

Thieves increasingly steal catalytic converters for easy money

If you start up your vehicle one morning and it sounds like the muffler has fallen off, there's a good chance your catalytic converter has been stolen. Catalytic converter theft has risen in recent years, due in large part to the soaring values of precious metals that catalytic converters contain.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), catalytic converter thefts rose from 1,298 in 2018 to 14,433 in 2020. That dramatic increase in reported thefts correlates with rising prices for the precious metals within a catalytic converter, including palladium and rhodium. As of December 2020, palladium was trading for about $2,300 per ounce, while rhodium was valued at upward of $16,000 per ounce en route to a peak of about $29,000 in April 2021. For context, in December 2018 an ounce of palladium hovered around $1,200, while an ounce of rhodium went for about $2,500.

Catalytic converter theft is also common because the component is mounted beneath the vehicle, making it easily accessible to thieves. With the proper tools, thieves can remove a catalytic converter in less than two minutes and profit handsomely by reselling it.

According to a 2021 report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the most valuable catalytic converters came from the second-generation Toyota Prius, which was built from 2004 to 2009. The valuable components were selling for upward of $1,000.

According to a 2021 report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the most valuable catalytic converters came from the second-generation Toyota Prius, which was built from 2004 to 2009. The valuable components were selling for upward of $1,000.

What is a catalytic converter?
People often misunderstand the name of this exhaust system component. Unless your vehicle has magically transformed itself into an Escalade, it does not have a "Cadillac converter." Instead, this exhaust system part is called a catalytic converter. It catalyzes the toxic byproducts of fuel combustion into the less poisonous gases that exit through your car's tailpipe in the form of exhaust. Catalytic converters use precious metals to convert the hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides produced within an internal combustion engine into less harmful carbon dioxide and water.

Because they require high temperatures to operate correctly, catalytic converters are often located close to the engine. That's why if thieves have removed your car's catalytic converter, the noise sounds like it is coming from underneath the front seats.

Which cars are at risk of catalytic converter theft?
If you're wondering what cars are targeted for catalytic converter theft, the answer is simple: any vehicle parked outside. With that said, smart catalytic converter thieves prefer some vehicles over others. For example, an SUV or pickup truck that sits high off of the ground is an easy target because the thief can easily slide underneath with a saw and cut the catalytic converter out of the vehicle. Considering the popularity of lifted suspensions and oversized tires on everything from Chevy Silverados to Subaru Crosstreks, vehicle owners are making it easier than ever for catalytic converter thieves.

Hybrids are also popular targets. Because a hybrid vehicle's powertrain tends to run cooler, the catalytic converter requires more precious metals to operate properly. That makes catalytic converters from hybrid models more valuable to auto parts recyclers.

You may have heard that thieves are particularly interested in the Toyota Prius hybrid. That is true due to the nameplate's popularity during its 20-plus years on the market. More than 2 million Priuses have been sold in the United States since 2000, making this Toyota the most popular hybrid in America. In turn, that also makes the Prius popular with catalytic converter thieves.

How much is a stolen catalytic converter worth?
The NICB says auto parts recyclers' typical catalytic converter price is between $50 and $250. However, some are more valuable than others. For example, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that in 2021 the most valuable converters were selling for more than $1,000. Those came from second-generation 2004-2009 Toyota Prius models.

Does car insurance cover stolen catalytic converters?
Catalytic converters are expensive to replace, with a typical repair running between $1,000 and $3,000, according to the NICB. If you carry optional comprehensive coverage as a part of your auto insurance policy, it will pay for the portion of the repair bill that remains after you've paid your deductible. For example, if you have a $1,000 deductible, and the bill to replace your catalytic converter is $2,000, you will pay $1,000, and your insurance company will pay $1,000. If you do not carry comprehensive coverage, you are responsible for the entire replacement cost of a catalytic converter.

Can I drive a car without a catalytic converter?
You can still drive a car without a catalytic converter, but it won't be pleasant and its exhaust will be more toxic. Also, if you live in a state that requires vehicles to pass an emissions test for annual license plate tags, you'll have no choice but to fix the problem.

How do I protect my catalytic converter from theft?
Catalytic converter theft prevention measures include parking your car in a garage or secure area. If you must park in an open lot or on a public street, try to find a well-lit space at night or where security cameras and surveillance are in use. If you have no alternative but to leave your vehicle parked in a dark area with little traffic, keep in mind that thieves may find your car more appealing.

Another way to prevent catalytic converter theft is to purchase an aftermarket device that makes it harder for a thief to remove the exhaust system component from your vehicle. A catalytic converter anti-theft device attaches to the bottom of the vehicle and covers or surrounds the catalytic converter. For example, if you own a high-riding truck or SUV, you might choose a protective anti-theft plate that doubles as a skid plate.

Other alternatives include motion-sensing lighting where you park your vehicle and a motion-sensing alarm system that will discourage a thief. Etching your car's vehicle identification number (VIN) into the converter might not prevent theft of the device, but it could prevent the thief from cashing it in with an honest auto parts recycler.

What to do when your catalytic converter is stolen
If you find yourself the victim of catalytic converter theft, call the police to file a report. Call your insurance company, too, even if you don't have comprehensive coverage on your policy. Both entities must track the trends around this type of theft and understand what is happening in the local community.

Next, you'll need to schedule a repair with your dealership or an independent mechanic as soon as possible. Because thieves are unconcerned about how they remove the component from your vehicle, you'll likely need to replace or repair more than just the converter itself.

Lastly, consider adding an anti-theft device to the bottom of your car. Either that or finally get around to cleaning out the garage so that you can park it in a secure location.

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