Illustration of man stealing catalytic converter from car
Illustrations by Remie Geoggroi

Why No Catalytic Converter in American Is Safe

Precious metals in auto exhaust systems have led to a nationwide crime wave. Is your car next?

What’s a catalytic converter?

Think of it as a filter for your car’s exhaust. Catalytic converters were added to American cars starting in 1975, along with unleaded gasoline, to lessen the environmental damage done by noxious auto emissions. Modern three-way catalytic converters, rolled out in 1981, oxidize carbon, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide and water while reducing acid rain-causing nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide into basic nitrogen. To clean emissions, catalytic converters need hot exhaust (752 degrees, which is why they’re usually positioned as close to the engine as possible) and corrosion-resistant hard metal catalysts made from platinum, palladium and rhodium.

Why do thieves want catalytic converters?

It’s all about those precious metals. Rhodium is one of the rarest and most valuable elements on Earth, with barely 30 tons mined worldwide each year (compared to 2,500 tons of gold), 80 percent of that from South Africa and most of the rest, at least before the invasion of Ukraine, from Russia. Part of that scarcity is due to its natural rarity, and part to the fact that it has to be extracted from existing platinum or nickel ore deposits. Palladium, while not quite as rare, also has to be extracted as a by-product of other precious metal mining. An estimated 80 percent of these two rare metals are used by the auto industry for catalytic converters—a supply that’s only gotten more scarce during the pandemic.

How do crooks get it?

The act is surprisingly simple: Thieves usually walk up with a duffel bag of tools (they sometimes use a racing-style rapid jack to lift the car), slide underneath and either unbolt the converter from the exhaust or simply cut it out with a sawzall. An experienced thief can be gone in 30 seconds, and the car owner won’t realize they’ve been hit until they start the car the next morning and it suddenly sounds like a revving Harley. Meanwhile, the thief sells the part to a scrapyard or auto parts recycler for anything from $300 to $1,500. Toyota Priuses fetch top dollar because their precious metals have been barely used.

Most popular targets for catalytic converter theft

1. 1985-2021 Ford F-series pickups
2. 1989-2020 Honda Accord
3. 2007-17 Jeep Patriot
4. 1990-2022 Ford Econoline vans
5. 1999-2021 Chevrolet Silverado Pickups
6. 2005-21 Chevrolet Equinox
7. 1997-2020 Honda CR-V
8. 1987-2019 Toyota Camry
9. 2011-17 Chrysler 200
10. 2001-21 Toyota Prius

Illustration of thieves making sale
Precious metals in auto exhaust systems have led to a nationwide crime wave. Is your car next? Illustrations by Remie Geoggroi

Who’s behind these thefts?

Thieves are getting increasingly sophisticated and, almost inevitably, an operation this widespread is becoming the domain of organized crime. In November 2021, police in Kentucky busted a ring of thieves with $100,000 in stolen catalytic converters. In March, an Ohio man was charged with stealing 1,100 of them. In January in Missouri, a company was charged with trafficking as much as $6.8 million in stolen catalytic converters across state lines. “This isn’t crackhead stealing,” says Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, in a city where catalytic converter thefts jumped from 1,800 in 2020 to 1,974 in the month of January 2022 alone. “This is very lucrative. This is organized crime.”

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Can the thefts be stopped?

The problem for police is that the crime is tough to spot and tougher to prove, as the junkyard/scrap metal industry isn’t exactly the most
carefully regulated business. Legislators in several states, including Texas and Colorado, are working to toughen laws around reselling
catalytic converters to require more documentation or limit the number that can be sold by one person. In the meantime, you can take the
following steps:

  • Park your car in a closed garage or well-lit area.
  • Use a motion-triggered, anti-theft camera, light or alarm. Adjust the sensors to make the alarm more sensitive, if possible.
  • Etch your car’s VIN number onto the catalytic converter. This can be a deterrent to resale.
  • Have a body shop install a wire cage such as a CatClamp ($180 and up, catclamp.com) or steel plate that makes the converter much more difficult to steal. Cost for the job runs $300 to $400.
  • Check with your insurance company to find out if you’re covered for catalytic converter theft—unless they’re comprehensive many policies won’t cover replacement, which can run $3,500 or more.

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