By Max Dorfman, Research Writer, Triple-I
Rising thefts of catalytic converters – fueled at least in part by increased black market prices for the motor vehicle pollution control component – have prompted renewed state and federal focus on stopping these crimes.
Converter theft increased in 2021, with 52,206 reported, up from 1,298 in 2018, according to claims data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). Catalytic converters are part of a vehicle’s exhaust system, reducing toxic gas and pollutants and turning them into safe emissions. While the part itself is valuable—sometimes over $1,000 each on the black market—the precious metals inside can be more valuable than gold. They include palladium, platinum and rhodium, the latter of which is valued at $20,000 per ounce.
The NICB has found a strong link between “crisis times, limited resources and supply chain disruptions that drive these thefts.”
In late 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice, along with federal, state, and local law enforcement partners, broke up a network of thieves, dealers, and processors involved in selling stolen catalysts to a metals refinery for tens of millions of dollars. The ring spanned nine states, from California to Virginia. The US is now seeking to forfeit $545 million linked to the case.
“This national network of criminals harms victims across the country,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “They made hundreds of millions of dollars in the process – on the backs of thousands of innocent car owners.”
Lawmakers are taking notice
By 2021, 26 states across the United States proposed bills to limit the theft of catalytic converters. Strict laws in Arkansas, South Carolina and Texas require scrap buyers to keep records of catalytic converter purchases. In Minnesota, a catalytic converter theft prevention program was created for the investigation and prosecution of this crime.
More recently, U.S. Representative Jim Baird of Indiana introduced a federal “Preventing Auto Recycling Theft Act,” which would help law enforcement agencies address these thefts by tagging each converter with a traceable identification number and establishing federal penalties.
“Whoever steals or knowingly and unlawfully takes, carries away or conceals a catalytic converter from the motor vehicle of another person, or knowingly purchases such catalytic converter, with intent to distribute, sell or dispose of such catalytic converter or any precious metal removed therefrom in interstate or foreign trade shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both,” the legislation states.
Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate by Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Preventive measures can be taken
The NICB recommends several steps to protect yourself against catalytic converter theft:
- Install a catalytic converter anti-theft device.
- Park trucks in an enclosed area that is secured, well lit, locked and alarmed.
- Park personal vehicles, if possible, in a garage. If that is not possible and the vehicle must be parked in a driveway, consider installing motion sensor security lights. Whether in the garage or outside in the driveway, set the alarm on your vehicle if equipped.
- Attend a local NICB catalytic etching event. If none are currently scheduled in your area, contact a muffler shop that can etch your vehicle’s VIN onto the converter and spray it with a highly visible high-heat paint.
The NICB notes that these thefts may be covered by insurance under the optional comprehensive section of your policy, which provides cover for damage to your vehicle that is not caused by a collision.