The short answer to why thieves are targeting catalytic converters on cars is that your catalytic converter contains precious metals that are, often, literally more valuable than gold. A catalytic converter contains small amounts of rare metals like palladium, platinum and rhodium. Given the effort it takes for a skilled thief to take a catalytic converter off of a car, they can potentially make a lot of money from stealing them if they have a buyer lined up. Because they are part of a car’s exhaust system, they can be easily and often discretely accessed.
What Makes Catalytic Converter Theft So Enticing
Stealing a car is not necessarily an easy task. Nor is it inconspicuous. A car has a lot of potential ways to track it from your license plate number to VIN numbers from the general look of it. And that’s just an older model. Newer cars will have more complex anti-theft and tracking systems that make them harder for a thief to make off with. Basically, stealing a car requires a thief to take on a fairly big risk, whether they are aware of it or not.
A catalytic converter is part of your exhaust system. It’s bolted or strapped under the vehicle. An experienced thief who went out looking for catalytic converters can get under a car and remove one in under two minutes. If you have a larger SUV or truck it can be even faster because it’s easier to maneuver under vehicles that are higher off the ground. No alarm has to go off and, from the outside of the vehicle, you’ll never even realize it’s gone when you check on your car later.
Your first sign that you’ve been targeted may only come when you start your engine and realize that your car is suddenly incredibly loud.
How Common are Catalytic Converter Thefts?
The National Insurance Crime Bureau recorded a total of 1,298 catalytic converter thefts in 2018. That seems relatively small, compared to the number of cars on the road. However, that rose to 14,433 in 2020. In 2021, there were over 52,000 catalytic converters stolen. It’s safe to assume the numbers are continuing to rise. Stealing catalytic converters is only going to become more prominent as more thieves realize the value and ease with which many can be taken.
In 2021, thieves looking for platinum were most likely to target these vehicles:
Dodge Ram 2500
Mercedes-Benz S63 AMG Coupe 63
These three models have the highest amount of platinum in their converters which made them the most desired targets for thieves.
What is a Catalytic Converter Worth to a Thief?
Thieves can typically get a few hundred dollars for a converter up to as much as $1,000 to $1,500 depending on the kind of converter that was stolen. If a thief is able to target several cars in a night, they can make a serious profit for their efforts. And since pretty much every car has one, they’re never hard to find.
The converter can be taken to a scrap yard where one of two things is likely to happen. If it’s a newer model and in good condition it could be resold again as is after a bit of a clean up. Otherwise, it can be broken down and the metals inside can be harvested to be sold elsewhere. Stolen catalytic converters are broken down into untraceable scrap and their platinum, palladium and rhodium have the greatest value.
Your converter probably contains around 13 ounces of tungsten which will net about $40 in scrap value.
There will also be somewhere between 3 and 7 grams of platinum in most catalytic converters. The value of platinum varies but it’s typically $30 to $40 per gram, which means you could have nearly $300 for just a small amount of platinum.
A converter may have 1 to 2 grams of rhodium. That may be worth around $400 per gram, so potentially $800 right there. Incidentally, per ounce, that works out to over $12,000. Rhodium is worth around 10 times the price of gold and potentially more depending on where gold is trading at any given moment.
You may have 2 to 7 grams of palladium in your converter as well. Palladium may be around $55 to $60 per gram, so potentially another $420 in that metal.
If you add up the totals here, that works out to $1,560. And there are still trace amounts of other metals like copper and nickel which may add a few dollars to the total as well.
Can You Prevent Catalytic Converter Theft?
Every car made after 1974 was required to have a catalytic converter installed. They help reduce harmful toxins in your exhaust gases and you can’t legally drive a car made after that year without one, so it’s not like you have many choices here.
Luckily, there are some methods which can help reduce your chances of losing yours to thieves. Replacing one can cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 to as much as about $3,000. Possibly even more as inflation rises and depending on the rarity of your vehicle. A converter for a Ferrari F430 will cost around $4,700.
A thief can collect multiple converters in a night, especially in areas with multiple vehicles parked outside with perhaps poor lighting or good cover to go from vehicle to vehicle unnoticed. There are some ways you can reduce the risk of being robbed, however.
Park in a garage whenever possible. Obviously not everyone has this luxury but if it is an option for you, make use of it. If they can’t get to your car, they can’t take your converter.
Make use of home security. Security lights and cameras trained on your vehicle can keep thieves away because, obviously, if they’re seen crawling under your car it’s pretty suspicious.
You can mark your converter to tip off scrap dealers by scratching your VIN into the outside of it. It’s a small thing and while some scrap dealers are willing to pretend they have no idea where the scrap came from, if a piece comes in marked with an identifying number, they’re far less likely to make a deal for it.
Invest in converter security. There are devices, like Cat Clamps, that can secure your catalytic converter in place and make it much harder for a thief to steal. It’s an investment, but it costs a lot less than a new converter. This is an especially good idea if you have a model that is highly desirable because of the rare metal content.
See if your car alarm has a vibration sensitivity setting or option. If your alarm goes off when the vehicle is jostled, this can be effective to deter thieves trying to remove the converter. There are also some sonic alarms that can be triggered by a person going under your vehicle. They are so loud that they actually hurt your ears and they also shut off as soon as the person leaves.
As many catalytic converters don’t currently have security set up, the problem is still one that doesn’t have many roadblocks in its way. An anti theft device is definitely your best bet in terms of preventative measures to keep your vehicle safe, but keeping it inaccessible to a would be thief is also a smart move.
The Bottom Line
Catalytic converter theft has been steadily rising for years. The metals in a catalytic converter are worth a lot of money in scrap, and thieves are able to steal them in only a couple of minutes, making them desirable targets. Because the metal is untraceable, there are a lot of upsides, and a thief can make thousands of dollars off just a few converters being scrapped.
There are security methods and prevention tips that can help you keep your converter safe. If your vehicle is one of the more highly prized targets, it may be in your best interests to invest in some catalytic converter specific security measures, and make sure you make it as hard as possible for thieves to take advantage.