Why Do People Steal Catalytic Converters?


Kimberly Dawn Neumann

If you’re wondering why people steal catalytic converters, the short answer is that they contain precious metals thieves hope to resell for a profit. But the longer answer is a tad more complex. Keep reading to learn why you must protect your car’s catalytic converter — before it ends up on the “missing” list.

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What is a Catalytic Converter?

Catalytic converters are part of a car’s exhaust system. They’re generally underneath most cars somewhere between the engine and muffler. All cars after 1975 have catalytic converters since the Environmental Protection Agency made them a requirement.

Catalytic converters serve to reduce air pollution emissions from gas-powered cars, including hybrids and trucks.

So why are catalytic converters attractive to thieves? Well, it turns out that the main components of these pollution-busters contain precious metals such as:

  • Palladium
  • Platinum
  • Rhodium

These are rare earth metals, more valuable than gold, generally found in mines in South Africa and Russia.

Supply chain issues are suddenly making these metals harder to obtain. And they aren’t just used for catalytic converters, but they’re also in:

  • Jewelry
  • Electronics
  • Construction
  • Dental fillings and more

That lack of supply means prices of these precious metals are going up, up, up. Even though a catalytic converter may only contain a few grams of one of these elements, they’re tempting to thieves. That’s because they’re fairly easy to remove and can provide a quick buck.

Catalytic Converter Theft Statistics

Catalytic converter theft is a decades old issue. However, it’s seen a rapid proliferation since 2018 owing to the spike in precious metal prices.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), 2022 saw more than 64,000 catalytic converters go missing. That was a huge leap from the NICB’s 2020 number of 16,660 catalytic converter thefts. And an even bigger jump from 2018’s paltry-by-comparison 1,298.

California tops the list with 24,102 insurance claims for stolen catalytic converters in 2022, and 51,585 from 2020 through 2022. Texas comes in second with 8,027 catalytic converter thefts in 2022 followed by:

  • Pennsylvania (2,757)
  • Illinois (2,021)
  • Washington (1,943)

And so far, the numbers for 2023 don’t seem to be slowing down at all. However, 39 states are enacting legislation to make it harder for unauthorized sellers and buyers to profit from fraudulent acquisitions.

For example, in 2023, Minnesota enacted a law requiring car owners to etch vehicle identification numbers (VIN) into converters. This law only allows registered scrap metal dealers to purchase these detached catalytic converters. They must check the converter’s VIN markings and match it to the seller’s documents to show ownership.

The idea is to deter potential thefts since it’s now a criminal offense to possess marked converters without appropriate paperwork.

How Much is a Stolen Catalytic Converter Worth?

While this may seem like a petty one-off theft, the Department of Justice actually just took down a $545 million catalytic converter theft ring. So, people steal catalytic converters because sometimes it may lead to big money.

In most cases, however, we’re not talking millions. The going price of a “second hand” catalytic converter varies, but figure anywhere from $50-$1,000 on the black market.

Some vehicles have converters with higher precious metal contents. Most skilled thieves know which cars will pull in the highest prices for their catalytic converters.

Which Cars are Targeted for Catalytic Converter Theft?

Ready to find out if your car is on the “hot list”?

First of all, cars that are higher off the ground — like SUVs, trucks, and cargo vans — are bigger targets. This is because it’s easier for a thief to slide underneath and remove the catalytic converter when there’s more space.

It can take about 30-90 seconds for a practiced thief to use an electric saw to dislodge your converter. So, the whole process is faster if getting under your car takes almost no time.

However, the priciest catalytic converters come from hybrids. One reason is that some models have two catalytic converters (which is like a double bonanza for a thief). The other is that the hybrid converters aren’t used as frequently so they have more precious metals inside.

Also, some early 2000 models of the Toyota Prius and Honda Accord are “thief favorites.” This is because manufacturers were trying to make cleaner cars at that time and the price of precious metals was cheaper. So, those converters contain more precious metals, often going for above $1,000 when resold illegally.

Protecting Your Car from Catalytic Converter Theft

Some of the steps to prevent your catalytic converter from being stolen are the same as keeping your car safe. But there are a few actions you can take that are “catalytic” specific as well.

Here’s how you can protect your car from catalytic converter theft:

  • Park in well-lit areas close to public entrances.
  • Park in your garage (if you have one) as opposed to the street or in your driveway.
  • Install motion lights, sensors, and cameras in your parking area.
  • Engrave or etch your VIN on your catalytic converter. It won’t keep a thief from taking it but it’ll make it easier to track.
  • Spray your catalytic converter with high-heat resistant paint. This is a deterrent for thieves since it lets buyers know it’s likely a stolen converter.
  • Add a “Cat Shield” to your car, which is a thin piece of metal covering the converter. Cables (which function like a bike lock) are another option.

What to Do if Your Catalytic Converter Was Stolen

As with any other personal property theft, you’ll want to report a stolen catalytic converter to the police. Though the odds of them finding it are probably slim, it’s still possible — especially if you etched/painted your converter. At the very least, it may help them find the thieves if they know areas they target.

You should also contact your insurance. Keep in mind that not all policies cover catalytic converter thefts. So this is something you may wish to look into before a theft occurs. Especially since a replacement may cost anywhere from $500 to $3,000.

In light of increasing thefts, taking out a policy with higher comprehensive coverage may be a smart move.

Replacing your catalytic converter as soon as possible will be best for your vehicle. Unfortunately, some people are experiencing repeated catalytic converter thefts and that really starts to add up.

Can You Still Drive Your Car Without a Catalytic Converter?

Yes, you can drive without a catalytic converter, but it will be noisy. Cars without catalytic converters will make a loud roar when you start them, louder still as you accelerate.

You’ll also likely see your check engine light come on and experience less power. You may notice more exhaust coming from your car as well.

While in the short-term you’ll probably be okay, eventually it will break down and shorten the life of the motor.

Make a Property Damage Claim with LegalASAP

Do you feel your catalytic converter theft was the result of someone else’s negligence? For example, a parking attendant fell asleep and multiple people parked in the same garage lost converters. If so, it might make sense to file a property damage claim.

LegalASAP can also help if insurance is giving you the run-around on getting a settlement for your stolen catalytic converter. Let us connect you with a lawyer for a free consultation today.

Kimberly Dawn Neumann

Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes toCosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more, visit:www.KDNeumann.com, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter @KimberlyNeumann