How to protect your car from catalytic converter theft, and what to do if it happens

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — How can car owners protect themselves from the wave of catalytic converter theft that has swept the country?

Claims for stolen catalytic converters doubled in the year ending June 2022, according to State Farm, the largest auto insurer in the U.S., whose customers reported more than 43,200 stolen converters that year.

And since 2019, converter theft has risen 1,215%, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an industry group that tracks insurance-related crimes.

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice announced the arrest of 21 people in connection with a crime ring accused of making $545 million by trafficking stolen catalytic converters.

Catalytic converters – which helps a car clean its exhaust – have become a target for theft in large part because of the price of precious metals, like palladium and platinum, that are used in the parts.

And, crucially, their location on the exterior of a car’s underside makes them easy to steal, David Glawe of the NCIB told NPR earlier this year.

Stealing a converter takes just a few minutes and a battery-operated saw. “You slide under the car, slice through your exhaust system, and you’re in and out usually within 30 seconds to a minute,” Glawe said.

Especially at risk are cars with enough tire clearance for a thief to easily slide underneath, like SUVs and pickup trucks. Hybrids are also attractive targets because their converters contain even more precious metals.

Replacing a stolen converter can cost thousands. Here are some precautions you can take:

How can I protect my car from catalytic converter theft?

Insurance companies, mechanics and police departments have recommended a wide range of anti-theft measures designed to deter a would-be thief. “It’s a holistic approach,” said Glawe.

The simplest solution is to keep your car away from public access when you’re not using it. If you have access to a garage, keep your car there. Those without a garage should try to park their car in a well-lit area, or somewhere you can install a security camera.

But even a garage might not be enough to protect your car. Public parking lots have become a target for daytime theft, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a recycling industry trade group, has warned.

“They’re pulling on major highways, driving down the highway. When they see a truck parked on the side of the road, they pull off, climb under it, cut it off, leave, and then they’re gone,” said Todd Foreman, the group’s director of law enforcement outreach, at a conference earlier this year.

Some cities have hosted workshops in which car owners can get their vehicle identification numbers engraved on their catalytic converter for free – an indication to would-be buyers that the converter has been stolen.

Other solutions might cost a bit of money: On the cheap end, brightly colored high-temperature paint can put off a thief who’d have to scrape it all off before selling. Owners can also attach alarm systems that are triggered by the vibration of a thief’s saw.

Other, more expensive anti-theft devices are designed to attach to a converter to make it more cumbersome to remove. Mechanics can also weld on metal plates or rebar to shield the converter.

A brand new catalytic converter sits on the floor at Johnny Franklin's Muffler in San Rafael, Calif.
A brand new catalytic converter sits on the floor at Johnny Franklin’s Muffler in San Rafael, Calif. No state has seen more catalytic converter thefts than California, according to State Farm. [ Justin Sullivan | Getty Images]

What should I do if it’s been stolen?

If your converter has been stolen, you’re likely to notice right away: Without the converter, your car will be much noisier than usual.

Most cars will run without a catalytic converter, though it’s inadvisable to do so for longer than necessary. Because the purpose of a catalytic converter is to reduce harmful emissions, cars without one will pollute much more heavily than an intact car, and you could fail an emissions inspection in states that require them.

When thieves use a saw to remove a catalytic converter, they can also cause damage to nearby parts of your car, like the alternator or fuel lines. It’s best to get your car checked out by a mechanic as soon as possible.

And check your car insurance. Comprehensive coverage on an auto insurance policy will cover damage to your car that occurs outside of a collision – including theft.

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