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Catalytic Converter Thefts: A Growing Problem

by Larry Carley copyright 2021-05-04

Thieves are crawling under cars, SUVs and pickup trucks and sawing through the pipes on either side of the catalytic converter so they can steal it and sell it for cash. Converter thefts skyrocketed in 2020 and are continuing at record pace in 2021 thanks to the soaring prices of certain precious metals used in the catalyst inside a converter. The ceramic honeycomb that forms the substrate for the catalyst has an extremely thin coating of platinum, palladium and also rhodium. The converter may contain 3 to 7 grams of these metals depending on the year/make/model of the vehicle.

The price of platinum has actually dropped and is now less expensive than gold. As of today (5-04-2021), the price for platinum is $1210 per troy ounce or $38 gram versus $1787 for gold. However, the price of palladium is up ($3011 oz. or $86 per gram) while the price of rhodium has gone crazy ($29,000 per oz. or $804 per gram! – and that’s no typo). These prices are a classic example of supply and demand.

A converter theft causes a lot of expensive damage to your vehicle

The sad part of this news is that a thief can do $1500 to $3500 or more in damages to your exhaust system when they hack out your converter. Your stolen converter will be sold to an unscrupulous scrap dealer or refiner for $150 to $300 or more depending on how much precious metal it contains. Some converters (primary Honda, Toyota, Lexus and certain European luxury makes) are more valuable and may fetch as much as $500 or more! Because of this, converter thieves target these vehicles where ever they can find them.

If your converter is stolen, the repair bill can easily run $1000 to $3500 or more. Original equipment converters are very expensive. A new OEM converter for a Ford F250 pickup truck will set you back $2800! An OEM converter for a Ford Mustang is about $1500. A Toyota Prius converter will cost over $2000. Plus, you will probably need to replace the damaged exhaust pipes on either side of the converter, and possibly the downstream oxygen sensor too.

Your auto insurance will cover much of the cost of a stolen converter IF you have comprehensive coverage (minus your deductible). But most people today carry high deductibles ($1000 to $1500) to save money on their insurance premiums, so that savings will cost you if you turn in a claim.

No VehicleI Is Safe From Converter Theft

Converter thefts can happen almost anywhere day or night. Your vehicle is vulnerable if you park it on the street, in an alley, in a parking lot or a public parking garage. A thief only needs a couple of minutes to hack your converter out from under your vehicle. If you are a victim of this crime, you’ll know it the instant you start your engine and hear the loud roar of the exhaust from under your vehicle. You can drive a car without a converter just like you can drive a car without a muffler. But it will be loud and you may risk getting a ticket for excessive noise. There is also a risk of poisonous carbon monoxide fumes entering the passenger compartment, so drive with the windows open until you can get your vehicle home or to a muffler shop or repair facility.

Do you have to replace a stolen converter?

No converter in the exhaust system also means there’s nothing to clean up exhaust emissions. Your car will be a polluter, and what’s worse the missing converter will trigger trouble codes that turn on your Check Engine Light. If you live in a city or state that requires an annual or biannual emissions test (OBD II plug-in test or tailpipe test), your vehicle won’t pass such a test and you won’t be able to renew your license plate.

EPA rules say it is illegal to remove or bypass the converter on a street driven vehicle. They call that “Emissions Tampering” so you can’t just fill the gap between the pipes where your converter was with a piece of exhaust pipe or flexible stainless steel exhaust tubing. You need to install a replacement converter. The EPA says it must be the same type as the original, but it can be an original equipment converter, new aftermarket converter or even a used converter from a salvage yard.

Aftermarket converters are much less expensive than OEM converters ($150 to $500 range), but do not contain as much precious metals in the catalyst because they are not designed to last as long as OEM converters. The basic aftermarket converter warranty is 2 years or 24,000 miles although some supplies do offer extended warranties of up to 10 years. This compares to 8 years or 80,000 miles on most OEM converters, or as long as 15 years and 150,000 miles on certain hybrid vehicles.

Aftermarket catalytic converter
Aftermarket converters are a more affordable alternative to OEM converters
if you have to replace a stolen converter on your vehicle.

What does a thief do with your stolen converter?

They will sell it to a scrapper, who will then resell it to a metal refiner who will recover the precious metals in the catalyst. The converter shell will be cut open so the ceramic honeycomb inside can be removed (that’s the valuable part). The catalyst will be pulverized and soaked in an acid bath acid to dissolve the valuable metals. The solution will then be treated with chemicals to separate out the platinum, palladium and rhodium. Smelting is another method that can be used to melt and recover the precious metals in the catalyst. The recovery process isn’t something the average person can do, and it’s dangerous (platinum dust is poisonous).

Catalytic converter cutaway
The precious metals inside a converter are thinly coated on the ceramic honeycomb.
Recovering the platinum, palladium and rhodium from the catalyst is not an easy process.

What are the cops doing to thwart converter thieves?

Not much, apparently judging by the recent spike in converter thefts. The police occasionally bust converter thieves after the fact, but like any crime it’s nearly impossible to prevent. Many cities across the country that had maybe a few dozen reports of converter thefts per month in 2019 and before are now seeing hundreds of such thefts!

When the cops pulled over a vehicle in Harris County Texas, they discovered 32 stolen converters in the trunk! At an average price of say $300 each, that’s$9,600 worth of stolen property. Not a bad haul for a night’s work.

All a thief needs to steal a converter is a cordless electric hacksaw or a cordless electric side grinder with an abrasive cutoff wheel. Either one can slice through the pipes on either side of the converter in a couple of minutes. It does make a lot of noise, but apparently few people notice. And if somebody does hear something suspicious, the thief and his stolen converter are usually long gone before anyone can do anything about it. It’s a low risk, high reward crime, and the criminals know it.

Stolen converters recovered by police
A collection of stolen converters recovered by the police.
What looks like a pile of junk is actually worth thousands of dollars!

How can you protect your vehicle from converter thieves?

About the only thing you can to protect your vehicle from converter theft is to park it inside a locked garage at night. Don’t leave it in the driveway or in the street if you can avoid it. And when you drive to work or a store, park in a highly visible, high traffic, well-lit area. Don’t park in the back of a parking lot, an alley or a public garage if you can avoid doing so.

Aftermarket companies make various kinds of cages, shields and guards that can be installed around the converter to discourage (but not prevent) theft. Such product cost up to a couple hundred dollars and may or may not provide the protection you hope for.

So until the price of palladium and rhodium comes back down to earth, the crime wave will likely continue…..

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