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

A brand new catalytic converter sits on the floor of Johnny Franklin’s Muffler in San Rafael, California. No state has seen more catalytic converter thefts than California, according to State Farm.

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How can motorists protect themselves from the wave of catalytic converter thefts that is sweeping the country?

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

And since 2019, converter theft has increased by 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 criminal network accused of making $545 million by trafficking stolen catalytic converters.

Catalytic converters – which help a car clean its exhaust fumes – have become a target of theft largely because of the price of precious metals, like palladium and platinum, which are used in parts.

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

Stealing a converter only takes a few minutes and a battery-operated saw. “You slide under the car, shut off your exhaust system and get in and out typically in 30 seconds to a minute,” Glawe said.

Cars with enough tire clearance that a thief could easily slide under them, such as SUVs and pickup trucks, are particularly at risk. Hybrids are also attractive targets because their converters contain even more precious metals.

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

How can I protect my car against catalytic converter theft?

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

The easiest solution is to move your car away from public access when not in use. If you have access to a garage, keep your car there. Those who don’t have a garage should try to park their car in a well-lit area or where you can install a security camera.

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

“[At] hospitals, it happens because people go to the hospital and either park up and visit, or they’re in the hospital for a long period of time, and their car is sitting there,” said Todd Foreman, director of group law enforcement awareness “It happens to big trucks, churches.”

Some cities have held workshops where car owners can have their vehicle identification number engraved on their catalytic converter for free – an indication to potential buyers that the converter has been stolen.

Foreman also recommends painting your converter with a brightly colored high-temperature paint, which can deter a thief who would have to scrape everything off before selling. “If they climb under a car and see it’s spray painted,” he said, “they know they’re more likely to be caught stealing those catalytic converters.”

Other solutions can cost a little money: homeowners can install alarm systems triggered by the vibration of a thief’s saw. Other more expensive anti-theft devices are designed to make a converter more cumbersome to remove. Mechanics can also weld on metal plates or rebar to protect the converter.

What should I do if it has been stolen?

If your converter has been stolen, you will probably notice it right away: Without the converter, your car will be much louder than usual.

Most cars will run without a catalytic converter, although it is not recommended to do so longer than necessary. Since the purpose of a catalytic converter is to reduce harmful emissions, cars without a converter will pollute significantly more than an undamaged car, and you could fail an emissions inspection in states that require it.

When thieves use a saw to remove a catalytic converter, they can also damage nearby parts of your car, such as the alternator or fuel lines. It is best to have your car checked by a mechanic as soon as possible.

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

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