With precious metals in demand, brazen thieves are stealing catalytic converters
Catalytic converters, the emissions-control devices designed to reduce toxic exhaust emissions, have always been an easy target of enterprising thieves in search of precious metals. With values of rhodium and palladium recently eclipsing that of gold, however, catalytic converter thefts are spiking nationwide. The devices can be sawed from the underside of vulnerable automobiles within minutes, and some thieves are so proficient at this automotive amputation that they’ll perform it in broad daylight.
Thefts of these components are not a new phenomenon, but the recent volume of these crimes has been indirectly triggered by a worldwide crackdown on emissions regulations, which have increased demand for palladium and rhodium. Palladium is a close relative of platinum—they’re both categorized as transition metals on the periodic table—and helps accelerate the breakdown of harmful hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. Rhodium combines with platinum to form a reduction catalyst, which lowers nitrogen oxide emissions (NO2) by stripping off nitrogen atoms and forming oxygen (O2) and nitrogen gas (N2).
According to The New York Times, the price of palladium has quintupled within the last five years, hitting a record of $2875 an ounce in 2020. It is currently worth $2000–$2500 an ounce. For context, gold is currently $1850 an ounce. Rhodium is even more valuable; it skyrocketed more than 3000 percent last year to a record $21,900 an ounce—almost 12 times the price of gold.
The theft of catalytic converters, which since 1975 have been required in all gasoline cars and trucks sold in the U.S., increased with the spread of COVID-19 last year as more people looked for ways to make ends meet. The Times reported converter theft was up as much as 800 percent in some metropolitan areas from 2019 to 2020.
It’s a hot topic on Reddit, Nextdoor, and other social media platforms. Reddit user Harassedlemon, owner of a Honda Element, became a victim two weeks ago and posted this photo:
Rick Parsons, who works in the service department at Germain Honda in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says Elements and Honda CRVs are susceptible for a number of reasons, mostly because their catalytic converters are easier to reach.
“We’ve been seeing it for the past several years in Elements and CRVs,” Parsons says, “although I’m not sure why you’d bother, because you can’t sell one without giving your personal information.”
Thieves are finding a way around that requirement by selling the devices on the black market. The Times says a converter can fetch several hundred dollars at a scrapyard, which will then sell it to a recycler to harvest the metals.
Toyota Prius converters are particularly attractive to thieves. Because the hybrid model’s combustion engine runs only intermittently, its catalytic converter has a lighter workload compared to that of a constantly-running combustion powertrain. As a result, the precious metals used to neutralize carbon monoxide and other harmful gasses are less depleted.
ABC-7 News in San Francisco reported a rash of catalytic converter thefts last year, and SF Toyota service manager Geoff Blackburn told the television station: “It’s gotten real bad. Talking to the insurance companies … [they’re] saying that the majority of their day is spent going out there inspecting these cars.”
Replacing a catalytic converter can cost $2000–$3000 and, although Germain Honda’s Parsons says insurance generally covers the repairs, sometimes the provider chooses to total the car instead. Since that isn’t the best-case scenario for many people, some are choosing to take preventative measures.
Six months ago, Reddit user malarkeys11 posted a photo of his homemade solution:
“My coworker [in Houston] got his catalytic converter cut off his Element. They didn’t take mine (I was parked next to him). I bought some 13-gauge metal, and this is my prototype: made half-inch holes so it could breath, Hopefully it discourages any thieves. Half a day building and flame-resistant clear-coating.”
Reddit’s Harassedlemon opted for a $300 security cage. “It’s expensive,” he wrote, “but worth it.”