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Catalytic converter theft continues to rise nationwide. Thieves can steal this antipollution device in minutes, sell it to scrap metal dealers and receive hundreds of dollars for the precious metals it contains.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), nearly 14,500 catalytic converters were stolen nationally in 2020, and that number jumped to 50,000 in 2021. State Farm, the largest insurer of automobiles in the U.S., says its number of claims for stolen catalytic converters hit 43,219 nationally for the period of July 2021 to June 2022, representing a 109% increase compared with the previous 12 months.
On Nov. 2, the Justice Department announced the takedown of a national, multimillion-dollar catalytic converter theft network. Officials said they would seek $545 million in forfeitures of cash, luxury cars and real estate from those arrested in the operation. In a press release, Attorney General Merrick Garland said, “We will continue to work alongside our state and local partners to disrupt criminal conspiracies like this one that target the American people.”
State lawmakers across the country have already been responding to the surge in catalytic converter thefts, and the NICB is tracking more than 150 pieces of legislation either enacted or under consideration to prevent these thefts. In October, California and New York were two states to pass such laws that tend to fall into three categories.
Regulating who can buy and sell catalytic converters and then requiring buyers to keep detailed transaction records.
Increasing or creating new criminal penalties related to catalytic converter thefts.
Making it easier to track stolen catalytic converters. New York now requires new car dealers to offer serial number etching kits to customers at cost. A California bill that would have required car dealers to etch converters with a vehicle’s unique vehicle identification number (VIN) did not pass.
A federal bill called the Preventing Auto Recycling Theft Act, or PART Act, was introduced in early 2022 and is still making its way through Congress. It would require the VIN to be stamped on catalytic converters of new vehicles and would create a grant program for VIN stamping of existing vehicles.
The cost of replacing a stolen catalytic converter
The NICB says replacing a catalytic converter can range from $1,000 to $3,000, which doesn’t include loss of work or paying for alternate transportation. The final price tag for a catalytic converter replacement depends on the vehicle make and model, as well as the area of the country.
Colby Sandman, owner of Muffler Tech in Sacramento, California, says replacing the converter on a Honda Accord or Toyota Prius can be up to $3,500. California is considered a “hot spot” for catalytic converter thefts, and Sandman’s shop replaces 15 to 20 stolen catalytic converters each day.
Sandman says that catalytic converter thefts are an “organized crime effort,” and teams of thieves with the tools and knowledge to quickly remove converters sweep through entire neighborhoods. He adds that it’s a crime of opportunity, and car owners can take steps to encourage thieves to move on to easier prey.
Tips for avoiding catalytic converter theft
Mechanics and law enforcement agencies offer these tips to avoid a wrenching experience and costly repair.
1. Know if you're a target for catalytic converter theft
Vehicles with ultra low-emissions are bigger targets, because they have catalytic converters that contain more rhodium, palladium and platinum that render pollutants harmless while increasing the value for thieves
Trucks and SUVs are often targeted because it’s easy to slide under the vehicle rather than jack it up. Sometimes thieves unbolt the catalytic converter, but more often they just cut the connecting pipes using a battery-operated saw.
CARFAX, a leading source of vehicle data, has identified the following vehicles as most likely to have their catalytic converters stolen nationwide:
1985-2021 Ford F-Series
1989-2020 Honda Accord
2007-2017 Jeep Patriot
1990-2022 Ford Econoline
1999-2021 Chevrolet Silverado
2005-2021 Chevrolet Equinox
1997-2020 Honda CR-V
1987-2019 Toyota Camry
2011-2017 Chrysler 200
2001-2021 Toyota Prius
Sandman also recommends calling a local muffler store and asking what cars are the most-targeted in your area.
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2. Install an anti-theft device on your catalytic converter
Investing in a cable locking device is much cheaper than replacing a catalytic converter. The internet is filled with such devices to protect the catalytic converter, which is part of the exhaust system that runs along the bottom of your car. The anti-theft devices Sandman’s shop installs range from $300 to $800.
Here are a few of the popular devices:
A steel shield that fits over the catalytic converter, requiring time and extra tools to remove.
Cages made of high-strength steel that's difficult to cut.
Stainless steel cables welded from the catalytic converter to the car’s frame.
Some muffler shops will custom-weld such a device to your car. But Sandman cautions that attaching the catalytic converter directly to the car’s frame can be noisy since the exhaust system otherwise is suspended from the car by sound-buffering hangers.
3. Paint your catalytic converter
Some sources recommend using a high-temperature fluorescent orange paint, such as those sprayed on barbecue grills, on your catalytic converter and then inscribing your vehicle identification number in the painted surface. This makes it traceable, and in theory at least, a reputable scrap metal dealer might decline to buy it.
4. Set an alarm or camera to catch thieves
You can turn up the sensitivity of your car alarm so that it goes off when thieves jostle your car. That’s fine, but as Sandman points out, then the alarm blares when your cat jumps on the car in the middle of the night. Other alarms are designed to be activated when the car is tilted, such as when it's jacked up. Installing a motion-sensitive dash cam can notify you of a theft in progress or possibly record the license plate of the getaway car.
In addition to alarms, get motion-sensitive lights and parking in your driveway or a closed garage whenever possible. Also get to know your neighbors and join neighborhood networks such as NextDoor to be aware of strangers in the area or reports of theft.
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5. Check your car insurance
Comprehensive insurance covers stolen auto parts.
If you have full coverage insurance — liability insurance, plus collision and comprehensive policies that repair or replace your own car — you're covered, minus your deductible amount. It's typically required if you have a loan or lease. If you have a vehicle at high risk for a catalytic converter theft, you might consider lowering your deductible amount.
If you carry liability coverage only, you're not covered for theft.
What to do if your catalytic converter is stolen
When you start your car, you’ll know by the loud exhaust noise if your catalytic converter was stolen. Here are a few steps that can get you going again:
Aftermarket catalytic converters are cheaper, but make sure they're allowed in your state. A good muffler shop should know what's legal. In some cases, an aftermarket catalytic converter will be less desirable and prevent future thefts.
Ask your mechanic if driving your car without the catalytic converter will further damage it. If not, drive only to the repair shop.
Contact your insurance company and take pictures of the damaged exhaust pipe where the catalytic converter used to be.
File a police report, which can easily be done online in many jurisdictions. This will help police track such crimes and might assist in arrests.
While your new catalytic converter is being installed, ask the repair shop about adding an anti-theft device to prevent future thefts.