Catalytic converters: why they get stolen and how it can be prevented

November 16, 2022 — by George Huang
Photo by George Huang
As catalytic converter thefts skyrocket in California, experts advise parking in locked garages whenever possible.

A Saratoga Nextdoor post by Marian Williams on Sept. 26 detailed an encounter with two thieves: “This morning at about 7:10 a.m, a neighbor’s catalytic converter was stolen. I saw two people in a white Ford F-250. I didn’t get a chance to get the license plate, but there were two people in the truck. They had the car jacked up and were gone before I could grab my phone. I’ve reported it to the police.” 

The theft of catalytic converters from cars has become increasingly common not only in Saratoga, but also the whole U.S. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) reported that from 2018 to 2020, the theft rate of catalytic converters jumped from 1,298 to 14,433, a 1000% increase. In 2021, there were 18,026 catalytic converter thefts in California alone. 

According to PBS, stealing a catalytic converter can take as little as 30 seconds, and because they are made up of valuable metals such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium, they turn a great profit. 

Responding to these increasing rates, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Sept. 25 that made it illegal for recyclers to buy the valuable car part from anyone other than the legal owner or a licensed dealer. Still, while lawmakers have made it harder to turn a profit on stolen catalytic converters, it’s important to know what these converters are and how to prevent them from being stolen from your car.

What are catalytic converters?

In essence, a catalytic converter takes the toxic fumes that your car generates and filters it into less harmful exhaust. They are vital to reducing air pollution, which is why the EPA made it mandatory for all cars starting 1975. The converter is usually positioned between the engine and the muffler under the car on the exhaust system.

Why are they being stolen?

Stealing catalytic converters is almost the perfect crime: It’s fast, it’s profitable, and there is still very little public awareness about it. 

In order to steal a converter, all a thief has to do is slide underneath a car and use a saw to cut off the section of the exhaust that houses the converter. This process only takes between 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending on the tools the thieves use and how difficult it is to get underneath the car. Because of this, the cars at the highest risk of theft are SUVs and trucks higher off the ground. 

After swiping the converter from under your car, a thief then sells the converter to a recycler. On average, a catalytic converter sells for between $800 and $1,200. The bigger the engine on a car, the more valuable the converter usually is, making both sports cars and trucks primary targets.

Saratoga student experiences theft

After leaving his Prius in San Francisco overnight, senior Saahil Chaddha awoke to find his car making loud noises and his catalytic converter gone.

The cost of a replacement part was $2,000, and he waited weeks for the delivery.

“I’ve heard some people waited months because of how huge of a demand for catalytic converters is. So many are getting stolen. We got really lucky,” he said.

After this experience, Saahil said he never leaves his car out in the street overnight anymore.

“I think I’ve learned not to leave my car exposed, just in case.” 

How can you protect your converter?

As shown from Chaddha’s experience, if your converter has been stolen, it often takes thousands more dollars and a few months of wait time before it can be replaced due to low supply and high demand.

The easiest way to prevent theft is simply to park your car indoors, especially more vulnerable SUVs and trucks. There are also shields and cases available for purchase online that can potentially protect the converter. Installing anti-theft devices such as cameras or lights will also deter potential thieves.

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