Why Thieves Are Coveting Your Catalytic Converter, Particularly Now

Photo credit: Joe Raedle - Getty Images
From the car and driver
Cities across the United States are reporting spikes in catalytic converter thefts, especially from stores and repair shops.
There are no national efforts to track down such thefts as the National Insurance Crime Bureau stopped tracking them in 2015, but law enforcement agencies say the numbers have increased recently.
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Start with total boredom and fluctuating unemployment, mix in tantalizing metal prices and let the law enforcement go away. The resulting cocktail, served in the country's cities and towns, is the sawed-off catalyst. It's an old favorite among enterprising criminals and dishonest scrap metal, but the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has brought this weird theft back into the spotlight.
Law enforcement agencies have reported a general increase in thefts of catalytic converters that require minutes and a pipe cutter and that typically hit repair shops and businesses with un-garaged fleets. The numbers aren't as dramatic as some other crimes, but they're worth noting in a year when many vehicles spend their time in the park.
In Wichita, Kansas, thieves stole "more than 500" catalysts in 2020, compared with "fewer than 200" in 2019, according to KAKE ABC. Thieves in Topeka have targeted vehicles transporting seniors, causing nearly $ 20,000 in damage, according to WIBW-13. In Lynchburg, Virginia, police reported 31 thefts as of September 31. Police in South Bend, Indiana, have reported 26 thefts as of November. The cold in Manchester, New Hampshire hasn't hampered thieves either, with 22 thefts since November. On a repair lot in Milwaukee, a repeat theft shopkeeper has used tire deflation over the past few months to make it difficult for the thief to crawl under his vehicles. If you do a search, you'll find reports everywhere.
Photo Credit: Warped Perception via YouTube
What are they worth?
Cats may look like small roasts, but the potential for earning money is high - just like copper tubing - from selling to metal scrapers. Cash withdrawals ranging from $ 50 to a few hundred dollars can add up quickly - and the sales aren't tracked by law enforcement. Two of the three rare earth metals used in catalysts are worth more per ounce than gold. According to Oklahoma metal trader APMEX, spot prices for palladium are currently over $ 2,300 (gold is around $ 1,900), up 20 percent since January. Rhodium, which started the year around $ 6,000, has seen a surge of over $ 16,000. Platinum was more stable after the March and April plunge during the pandemic. While it was still far from the price level it had a decade ago, it hit $ 1000 in December, as it did in January 2020 when the metal hit a two-year high. With national unemployment peaking at 14.7 percent in April and lots of trucks and SUVs spinning up and idling or less driven this year, the crime opportunities for catalysts this year have been ideal.
Exact thefts are not known. The National Insurance Crime Bureau, the top vehicle theft data source reported to insurance companies, stopped tracking converter thefts after 2015. That year, the NICB wrote that nearly 4,000 catalytic converters were reported stolen nationwide - an increase of 23 percent since 2008 - that the real number was "much higher".
"Although these thefts are common, these thefts are difficult to track," Tully Lehman, public affairs manager for the NICB, told Car and Driver. "As a result, the data received from insurers tends to be insufficiently reported."
What can you do about it?
Older vehicle owners tend to decline coverage for extensive damage that would cover such theft as these insurance policies can be more expensive than their cars. Full coverage owners could also refuse to report catalytic converters theft, Lehman said, if the total repair cost is about their deductible (and to avoid a likely increase in insurance premium).
But replacing a cat doesn't come cheap. Because it is a critical emissions component, the EPA prohibits the sale and installation of used catalytic converters that have not been refurbished and certified by an approved manufacturer. Used cats must also match the original equipment of the particular vehicle and can only be installed if the vehicle has passed a certain age, if a government inspection requires a replacement, or if a car is taken to a repair shop without a converter. That said, it is illegal to swap a used converter straight from another identical car, buy one at a junkyard, or install a converter for another car model. Even a refurbished cat for a 20-year-old Volvo can cost $ 500. New factory cats typically cost at least $ 1000. Add at least one hour of work and you'll see a big bill - or risk your car being nondrivable and stinking badly.
While valuable auto parts like wheels can be fitted with inexpensive locking bolts, there isn't much you can do to prevent catalytic theft other than park the most vulnerable high clearance vehicles in a garage and maintain a good insurance policy.
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