How to Prevent Catalytic Converter Theft

Low angle shot of car's tailpipe

We’ve all heard stories of car break-ins where thieves target a purse, stereo system or other valuables left inside the vehicle. But recently, a new type of automotive crime is on the rise: catalytic converter theft.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, there were 1,298 catalytic converter thefts reported in 2018. By the end of 2020, that number had climbed to 14,433 – a more than 1,000% increase! And unfortunately, this alarming trend shows no signs of slowing down.

But what exactly is a catalytic converter? And how can you prevent your vehicle from becoming a target? Keep reading to find out.

What is a catalytic converter?

A catalytic converter is a key component of your car’s exhaust system. Its job is to help reduce harmful emissions by cutting down on the amount of pollutants that exit the tailpipe.

How does a catalytic converter work?

Internal combustion engines generate power by burning fuel, like gasoline or diesel. When this fuel is burned, it produces exhaust gasses.

(See also: What’s The Difference Between Regular and Premium Gas?)

The majority of this exhaust gas contains nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapor – emissions which are mostly harmless. However, because your car is unable to burn 100% of the fuel that enters the engine, it also produces some harmful pollutants: namely carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide. When these types of emissions enter the atmosphere, they can produce smog and acid rain.

We’ll spare you the full chemistry lesson, but a catalytic converter uses a “catalyst” to “convert” those harmful emissions into the less-harmful byproducts of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and water vapor.

To accomplish this, the converter uses a ceramic honeycomb-type structure to heat the exhaust gas. The ceramic is coated with several types of precious metals (platinum, rhodium and palladium), which serve as the catalyst. When your car’s exhaust gas interacts with these metals, they create chemical reactions that reduce the amount of harmful pollutants exiting the tailpipe.

Why do people steal catalytic converters?

There are two reasons why catalytic converters are being targeted for theft.

  • Scrap metal for cash: The precious metals used as catalysts are valuable… and prices are on the rise. In fact, in March 2021, rhodium prices peaked at nearly $30,000 an ounce! While the price of these metals frequently fluctuate, a typical catalytic converter can contain anywhere from $200 to more than $1,000 worth of scrap metal.
  • Resale for parts: Stolen catalytic converters can be sold to individuals or less-than-honest repair shops looking to save money over buying a new replacement part.

So between metals recycling and black market auto part sales, there’s money to be made from stealing catalytic converters.

How do I know if my catalytic converter has been stolen?

You can’t tell if your catalytic converter has been stolen by simply looking at your car. But you’ll know as soon as you start the engine.

To steal a catalytic converter, a thief will need to crawl under your vehicle, cut both sides of the converter and remove it from the exhaust system. That means your car will essentially be running without a muffler, making the engine extremely loud.

What should I do if my catalytic converter has been stolen?

If your catalytic converter has been stolen, it’s a good idea to call the local authorities and file a police report. Then, you should arrange to get your vehicle towed to a nearby repair shop.

Can I drive my vehicle if my catalytic converter has been stolen?

Since your catalytic converter is only part of the exhaust system, your car can technically run without it. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to just drive off.

When the catalytic converter has been cut out, exhaust gasses will be released underneath your vehicle instead of behind it. Not only will this make your vehicle be loud, but you also run the risk of those harmful exhaust gasses entering the cabin.

And here’s one more thing to consider. If a thief has just been sawing away at the underside of your car, there’s a possibility other important components could have been damaged, too.

How much does it cost to replace a catalytic converter?

According to CARFAX, the average cost for a new catalytic converter ranges between $1,800 to $2,000. But for luxury vehicles and sports cars, it could cost even more.

Do I have to replace my catalytic converter?

Given the high replacement cost, you may be wondering if you need to replace the catalytic converter. Unfortunately for your wallet, the answer is yes.

Because your catalytic converter is designed to remove harmful pollutants, it’s actually federally illegal to remove it from your exhaust system. Additionally, a missing “cat” can trigger a check engine light, impact the performance of your vehicle and result in some foul exhaust smells.

Does car insurance cover catalytic converter theft?

If your catalytic converter has been stolen, you may not have to foot the bill alone. That’s because the optional comprehensive coverage on your auto insurance policy can pay for damages that occur outside of a car accident, such as vandalism, fire or theft. At Erie Insurance, this coverage includes catalytic converter theft.

That means if you choose to file an insurance claim, all you’ll have to pay is your deductible (the amount of money you pay toward repairing your car before insurance kicks in). If your catalytic converter is stolen, your local insurance agent can help you review your coverage and talk you through your options before you file a claim.

See also: How to Choose a Deductible

Are some cars at higher risk for catalytic converter theft?

Catalytic converter theft is an opportunistic crime by nature. The easier it is for the thief to get away, the more likely they are to target your vehicle. This often puts high-riding vehicles like trucks and SUVs at greater risk because they don’t have to be jacked up for the catalytic converter to be removed.

How can I prevent catalytic converter theft?

With the recent rise in catalytic converter thefts, some companies have started to make protective cages that can be installed over your exhaust system. Since this is mostly a crime of convenience, a cage will make your car less of an easy target.

Beyond that, your best chance at protecting against catalytic converter theft is to follow the same precautions that protect your car against vandalism – like installing an alarm or parking in a safe, well-lit area.

Protect what matters

Discovering that you’ve been the victim of theft or vandalism is enough to ruin anyone’s day. But with auto insurance from ERIE, you don’t have to face it alone. We do everything we can to make our claims process convenient and fast. Because the sooner we can resolve your claim and replace your loss, the sooner your life returns to normal. See what makes us different and find a local car insurance agent near you.


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