Virtually all vehicles with internal combustion engines have catalytic converters, which are intended to reduce 90% or more of harmful greenhouse gases emitted from an exhaust system. Converters offer tremendous benefits to the environment, as well as to the growing number of criminals who steal them.

According to one major U.S. car insurer’s claims data, catalytic converter theft increased by nearly 300% between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021. During those 12 months, almost $34 million was paid to company policyholders to settle claims. The previous year’s payout was less than $9 million.

Catalytic converters are typically placed near a vehicle’s rear exhaust system, exposed and accessible to thieves. An experienced criminal needs only a few minutes and a battery-powered saw to remove a converter. Thieves operate so quickly that they often work in broad daylight.

Why steal them?

Modern gas- and diesel-powered engines pass exhausts through catalytic converters, where small amounts of rare and expensive metals, including rhodium, platinum and palladium, start a chemical reaction, turning the gasses into less-toxic pollutants for release. These metals make each stolen converter worth up to $800 to black-market auto parts suppliers and scrapyards. 

Fueling the recent increase in converter thefts is the reduced mining of the three rare metals due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions at South African mines, which contain an estimated 95% of the world’s supply. 

Which vehicles are targeted?

While most vehicles are potentially susceptible to converter theft, hybrid models are frequently targeted, such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda CR-V. Their converters tend to corrode less, as they rely on pollution-free batteries for much of their power. Replacing a stolen converter may cost a vehicle owner $2,500 or more, and other damage to the vehicle often occurs during a converter theft. 

Other common targets are pickups and other trucks that sit high off the ground, making it easier for thieves to crawl underneath them. 

Protecting a vehicle

The best way to protect a vehicle is to park it in a locked garage. Car alarm systems calibrated to set off upon vibration help deter converter theft. Engraving the converter with the vehicle identification number (VIN) makes stolen devices easier to trace and stops reputable dealers from purchasing them. Mechanics can weld the converter’s bolts shut, making them more challenging to remove. Another solution could be cage clamps, which surround converters and make them harder to remove.

When it’s necessary to park outdoors – on the street or in a driveway and large commercial and institutional parking lots: 

  • Park with the vehicle’s exhaust side close to a wall or fence, making it more difficult for thieves to access the converter
  • Leave little space around your car by parking alongside other vehicles
  • Park in well-lit areas near building entries
  • Choose busy roads when parking on a street

Dealerships and fleet operations

Converter thieves most often target individual cars parked in residential areas. However, car dealerships, rental agencies and others with large vehicle fleets should be on guard. This June, two men needed about an hour to steal 20 converters from a Mitsubishi dealership in a Houston suburb. In August, thieves in Charlotte, North Carolina caused $18,000 in damage while removing converters from six vehicles at a Chevrolet dealership, and eight converters were stolen from school buses parked at a high school in York County, South Carolina.

Organizations with scores of cars stored outdoors require video surveillance cameras to monitor their lots 24 hours a day. Cameras and analytic software enable the use of line-crossing technology, which creates alerts when a person moves beyond a certain point, such as a perimeter fence. 

Artificial intelligence-based software goes a step further, instantly analyzing live video to identify people and vehicles on camera. Alerts deploy when people are detected in areas where they shouldn’t be or at times when the entire site should be empty. The software automatically sends notifications to a security service or law enforcement for further investigation. The technology is cost-effective and flexible, enabling the analytics on all cameras or where extra security is required.

Catalytic converter thefts will continue to skyrocket as prices for rhodium, platinum and palladium remain at or near all-time highs. Until prices return to normal, take steps to protect one to hundreds of vehicles from costly damage.

This article originally ran in Security, a twice-monthly security-focused eNewsletter for security end users, brought to you by Security Magazine. Subscribe here.