Financial Crime: ‘The noise and the exhaust smell …I knew it was bad’: Catalytic converter thefts are rising, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic
Nothing will make your heart sink faster than turning on your car and hearing the ungodly rumbling noise that comes when your catalytic converter has been stolen.
For many, that sound will be their first introduction to what has been among the fastest rising categories of auto theft during the pandemic. The surge has been fueled in part by skyrocketing prices for the precious metals contained within the part, which is a key part of a car’s emission’s system.
“The noise and the exhaust smell — I had no idea what it was, but I knew it was bad,” said actor Cameran Hebb, who had the catalytic converter stolen from her Toyota
Prius last summer.
Catalytic converter theft has shot up tenfold since 2018 and the problem is rampant nationwide, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a trade group that tracks theft and fraud.
“‘As the value of the precious metals contained within the catalytic converters continues to increase, so do the number of thefts of these devices.'”
— David Glawe, President of the National Insurance Crime Bureau
“We have seen a significant increase during the pandemic. It’s an opportunistic crime. As the value of the precious metals contained within the catalytic converters continues to increase, so do the number of thefts of these devices,” said David Glawe, the group’s president and CEO.
Thieves sometimes can collect up to $1,000 for one catalytic converter depending on its condition and the car it was taken from, experts say.
What should you do if your catalytic converter is stolen?
So you’ve discovered your catalytic converter has been stolen. What’s the first thing to do?
“Don’t drive it,” says David Bennett, manager of repair systems for the Automobile Association of America. “Get it towed.”
Mechanics say a car can operate without its catalytic converter, but it will be extremely noisy and spew fumes both inside and outside the vehicle. Thieves typically cut the part off from beneath the vehicle with a power saw or blowtorch, and if they do a hatchet job, they can damage other systems as well, possibly affecting the vehicle’s driveability.
Once the car is safely at the repair shop, the next call should be to the insurance company.
Does auto insurance cover catalytic converter theft?
The key thing here is whether your policy includes comprehensive coverage. Otherwise, you may be on the hook for a large bill.
Drivers with older model cars often only carry liability insurance as required by law, and forsake comprehensive coverage. This can be a problem, as catalytic converters from some older model vehicles are high in demand because they can contain more of the precious metal than newer cars.
The most popular models for thieves include the Toyota Prius and Tundra and the Honda
Element and Accord, according to the NICB and many mechanics. Higher clearance vehicles are often preferred because thieves don’t need to jack them up to slide underneath.
“Honda is aware of an increasing number of catalytic converter thefts involving a variety of vehicle brands and models, including our own, ” a company spokesman told MarketWatch. “With our industry trade association, Honda is exploring a variety of approaches to address this issue, and is open to working with other concerned stakeholders to develop practical solutions.”
A Toyota spokesman similarly noted that: “catalytic converter theft is an industry wide challenge.”
“In our view, the most effective approach requires close collaboration between the broader automotive industry and local and state authorities to devise legislative solutions aimed at eliminating the market for these stolen parts,” he added.
For now, thieves often look for situations where they can move quickly and gather multiple catalytic converters in one go, experts say.
“Thieves will sweep through a neighborhood or an apartment complex or fleet parking lot and just walk away with a dozen of these,” said Alex Revulta, the automotive shop manager at Elite Auto Group in Houston.
The supply-chain issues the United States has faced over the past year have only made matters worse, as getting a new part can now take more time.
In the end, the cost of the replacement part alone can be as high as $3,000 and if additional damage was done to the vehicle during the theft, a repair can run up to $5,000, Revulta said.
What can I do to protect my vehicle from catalytic converter theft?
While it may be hard to stop a professional thief, there are some steps one can take to convince a less determined one to move on to the next car.
Several manufacturers make shields that surround the catalytic converter in a kind of metal cage that will add time to cutting the part off. That added effort will deter many thieves.
Another option is having your car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) stamped on the catalytic converter. That may make it harder to sell the stolen part.
“The thought that it can get stolen again gave me a lot of anxiety,” said Hebb, whose Prius was vandalized in Seattle. “I ended up getting the shield. While it cost me around $400, it gave me some additional peace of mind.”