If the inner workings of automobiles aren’t your strong suit, the title of this article alone might have you wondering: what on earth is a catalytic converter? What does it do? Why would someone want to steal one?

If this is the case, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we’ll answer all the questions above, as well as explain how you can protect yourself from catalytic converter theft.

What is a catalytic converter?

First and foremost, a catalytic converter is an integral part of a car’s emissions system. They reduce the amount and severity of the pollution that comes out of your car’s tailpipe whenever you go for a drive. Catalytic converter designs vary slightly among different car manufacturers, but in general they are oblong or cylindrical in shape and bear a resemblance to mufflers. As for where your catalytic converter is located in your vehicle, it sits between the engine and the muffler, typically a bit closer to the engine.

How do they work?

First introduced on U.S. vehicles in 1975, catalytic converters convert carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons — all highly toxic — into water vapor and carbon dioxide. It’s not a perfect solution, but it beats the alternative!

The catalytic converter’s proximity to the engine means that it can heat up more quickly — this is ideal, as they are most effective at higher temperatures. In fact, modern vehicles emit the majority of their pollution in the first few minutes after starting up. This is because neither the engine nor the catalytic converter can reach their ideal operating temperature in that short amount of time.

What are they made of?

If you were to open up your catalytic converter and check out what’s inside, you’d find a piece of ceramic coated in various rare, precious metals. These metals include palladium, rhodium, and platinum.

  • Palladium is a lustrous, silvery-white metal mined primarily in Russia and South Africa. Though probably a bit less well-known than other precious metals, and generally mined only as a secondary material, it’s actually one of the most valuable — since early 2016, the price of palladium has risen above the price of gold. Palladium is used in jewelry, dentistry, and electronics, but about 85% of all palladium mined ends up in catalytic converters.
  • Rhodium is another silver-white metallic element. It is highly reflective, corrosion-resistant, and is, though not the most well-known, the rarest, most valuable precious metal in the world. Rhodium is used as a glass-strengthening alloy, a coating added to jewelry to protect against tarnish and scratches, and, primarily, in catalytic converters.
  • Platinum is another precious metal, which is highly resistant to corrosion and tarnishing, soft and malleable, unaffected by common acids, and does not oxidize. It, like palladium and rhodium, is used in jewelry. However, it is also used in pacemakers, medication, magnets, electrical contacts, and (you guessed it!), catalytic converters.

In catalytic converters, these rare metals are used as catalysts to create a chemical reaction that converts harmful emissions (nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons) into safer substances (water vapor and carbon dioxide).

Why are thieves stealing catalytic converters?

The description above of the materials used in building catalytic converters is a pretty big hint! As of mid-2020, platinum was trading at $944 per ounce, palladium for $2,190, and rhodium at nearly $10,000 per ounce. Nope, that’s not a typo: as of just last year, rhodium was worth $10,000 per ounce!

While there’s not much of each of these metals in each catalytic converter — typically only a few grams of the three combined — depending on the exact amount inside, one catalytic converter can be worth anywhere from $200 to $1,000.

Simple cash value aside, we’ve also seen rates of catalytic converter theft rise during (and due to) the pandemic. At face value, COVID-19 doesn’t seem like something that would affect the theft of auto parts. But the pandemic has led to difficult financial times for many, and desperate times can call for desperate, illegal measures. Finally, the pandemic has changed the way we drive — with many companies having made the shift to remote work, fewer people are commuting, which means more cars sitting in driveways, vulnerable to opportunistic thieves.

What is being done about catalytic converter theft?

In response to the ongoing spike in rates of catalytic converter thefts, state legislators have taken various measures to deter thieves and prevent the sale of stolen auto parts. These have included beefing up criminal penalties for this particular crime, tightening recordkeeping requirements for scrap metal dealers, and instituting bans on the sale of converters without accompanying proof of ownership.

What kind of cars are being targeted the most?

Many of us might assume that thieves are more likely to target expensive luxury vehicles for theft. And that’s correct, to some extent — if a thief is looking to steal the entire car, they’ll probably look for something a bit on the fancier side.

However, if they’re aiming to make off with just the catalytic converter, just about any car will do. In fact, the most likely cars to be targeted for catalytic converter theft are just average, ordinary makes and models. These include the Honda Accord, Toyota Tacoma, Toyota Prius, and Lexus SUVs. Lastly, low-emission vehicles are more likely to be targeted, as well — the catalytic converters on these vehicles contain more precious metals than others.

How can you avoid having your catalytic converter stolen?

If you drive one of the cars mentioned above, there are a few things you can do to try and prevent having your catalytic converter stolen.

  • Purchase a device that is essentially a metal cage which can be locked on over the catalytic converter to make it a bit more of a hassle to steal.
  • Park your car in a secure garage if you have the option to do so.
  • Park in a well-lit, busy area if you don’t have access to a garage.

What should you do if your catalytic converter is stolen?

You’ll be able to tell that your catalytic converter has been stolen if you start up your car and hear a low, loud rumble. You can check underneath your car to confirm that it’s missing. If that’s the case, you’ll want to make two calls: one to the police, and one to your insurance agent.

Once you’re off the phone, try to avoid driving as much as you possibly can. Without a catalytic converter, you can still get where you need to go, but your trusty car or truck becomes a toxic emissions factory on wheels. In addition to the detrimental effect on the environment, driving without a catalytic converter is illegal. What’s more, if you’re caught driving without one, you could end up paying thousands of dollars in fines.

Does your insurance cover catalytic converter theft?

As with many insurance questions, the answer is: it depends. However, if your auto insurance policy includes comprehensive coverage, you’re likely covered in the event that some enterprising thief makes off with your catalytic converter. You can talk to your insurance agent and go over the details of your policy to be sure.

To sum things up, make sure to park your car in a safe spot (locked up inside, if you can), consider adding a cage over the top of your catalytic converter, and be as vigilant as you can to try and prevent theft. And if you don’t already have comprehensive coverage for your vehicle, reach out to Elephant and get a quote today.

Article last updated on April 17th, 2024 at 11:39 am

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