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You may not realize it, but the catalytic converter under your vehicle contains metals that have become more valuable than gold.
While you may not be aware of that fact, thieves definitely are. And due to the perverse rules of supply and criminal demand, thefts of these devices are skyrocketing.
Your vehicle's catalytic converter is the shiny, oval-shaped object between the engine and the muffler. Its purpose, as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency since 1975, is to provide cleaner air by removing the worst toxic pollutants from your car's exhaust.
Thieves, however, don't seem to care much about clean air or the economic pain they may be causing you.
So, if catalytic converters have been required on vehicles for nearly the last half century, why are we now hearing about rampant theft? The answer: Because the precious metals that coat the converter's honeycomb-like interior have skyrocketed in value.
Why have they skyrocketed in value? According to the New York Times, it's due to “a global trend toward stricter tailpipe emissions rules, as well as the more rigorous enforcement after the Volkswagen emissions scandal, in which the automaker illicitly modified its vehicles' pollution controls to seem cleaner than they really were."
This, the Times reports, “has led to a surge in demand for higher-performance catalytic converters and the valuable metals that make them work."
At a time when the price of gold was around $1,800 an ounce in mid-February, the price of palladium — one of the precious metals in catalytic converters — had risen to more than okay,$2,000 an ounce, a fivefold increase from five years ago. Rhodium, another precious metal in catalytic converters, is $21,900 an ounce, a 3,000% increase from five years ago.
Lured by these prices, thieves are surreptitiously slithering under vehicles at night and removing the converters with a saw or pipe cutter in mere minutes. Their next step is to find buyers in the black market, which apparently is not a difficult task. In this case, that means scrapyards and recyclers that will pay the thieves $200 to $300 for the converters before they then sell it to recyclers who extract the valuable metals.
While no national statistics have been compiled, a raft of local counts by police departments shows the extent of the thievery. In St. Louis, the thefts increased eightfold from 2019 to 2020. In Wichita, Kansas, they nearly tripled.
For the victims, the cost can be substantial. Typically, the expense of replacing a stolen catalytic converter is at least $1,000, but can be $2,000 or $3,000 if the thief inflicted more damage. If you have comprehensive auto insurance, theft of this type should be covered, and you'd be out just your deductible. But it's important to keep in mind that auto-policy deductibles are usually not like medical deductibles, which are good for one year. With most auto insurance, it is per-incident.
It does seem outrageous that scrapyard dealers are knowingly buying catalytic converters that might be hot, and some states have begun to respond by requiring them to check photo IDs. California has even begun requiring them to take photos of the sellers.
Several legislatures are considering bills to further crack down on the practice. In Indiana, a recently introduced bill would make catalytic-converter theft a felony punishable by prison time. A Minnesota bill under consideration would prevent anyone but licensed scrap-metal dealers from buying used catalytic converters. It would also limit the scrap-metal dealers to buying from repair shops, auto recyclers, or vehicle owners who provide proof of ownership.
The problem, though, is that a tough law in one state can't stop thieves from selling their purloined wares in another state with weak or nonexistent laws.
Therefore, it falls upon vehicle owners to take matters into their own hands to protect against catalytic-converter theft.
Perhaps laws should be strengthened to make things riskier for the people who buy the stolen goods. And maybe we need to start thinking more about electric cars.