Catalytic converter theft - why is it so common?

Car owners urged to protect their vehicles as catalytic converter thefts soar, with criminals stealing parts off cars parked on residential streets...

catalytic converter thefts

Insurance companies have revealed massive increases in catalytic converter thefts over the past couple of years, and, in particular, since the start of the UK's first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020. 

Zurich Insurance has seen a 450% increase in claims for catalytic converters in the past two years, with the average repair bill for customers around £1200. It states that 78% of theft claims were for Honda, Lexus and Toyota hybrid vehicles. 

Another insurer, Ageas Insurance, says catalytic converters now account for three out of every 10 theft claims it deals; prior to the 2020 lockdown they only accounted for one in five theft claims. They accounted for 20% of thefts from private vehicles in the period from October to December 2019, but jumped to 30% from January to March 2021. 

Ageas reports that although most thefts happened while cars were parked at home, either on the driveway or the road, some thieves were brazen enough to steal them from supermarket car parks while the driver was shopping.

The devices, which form part of vehicle exhaust systems and help to reduce emissions, are being stolen because they contain precious metals that have shot up in value in recent years, giving them a high scrap metal value.

What are the police doing to combat catalytic converter theft?  

The Metropolitan Police’s motor vehicle crime unit investigated nearly 15,000 catalytic converter thefts in London in 2020, compared with 9500 the previous year. Other police forces around the country have also reported increases in catalytic converter thefts.

In a bid to combat the problem, more than 300 police officers carried out a series of raids at properties across east London, Kent and Essex in March, 2021.

catalytic converter theft

They recovered more than 18 catalytic converters from one location, along with tools that could be used in thefts, including an angle grinder, a car jack and a reciprocal saw. They also found many more catalytic converters at a metal processing plant in Hackney, central London, plus other stolen metal and a smelting machine.

On the Essex coast, police officers intercepted a shipping container believed to contain stolen metal and car parts, which were due to be shipped to the Ivory Coast for processing and refining.

With thousands of people working from home or furloughed due to the coronavirus pandemic, fewer vehicles are being left in public car parks with CCTV coverage or other security during the day.

Thieves are taking advantage of this by targeting vehicles parked in driveways or on the street. Victims have reported being threatened when they tried to confront criminals. 

Detective Chief Inspector James Stanyer, the Met Police’s lead officer for motor vehicle crime, said: “The criminals involved in stealing catalytic converters often commit their offences in full view of the owners of the vehicle and other members of the public, leaving them shocked and terrorised.”

Why are catalytic converters stolen? 

Toyota Prius (2009-2015) front three quarters

There has been a problem with catalytic converters – and even entire exhaust systems – being stolen from cars for many years. Replacing the catalytic converter and exhaust on a Toyota Prius, for example, is expensive, so there is a demand for cheap secondhand systems. 

However, the situation has been exacerbated by a rise in the value of the precious metals found in catalytic converters, including palladium and rhodium, which are both more expensive than gold. Palladium is worth around £1915 per ounce, rhodium more than £17,700, and platinum about £844 per ounce.

The increase in the value of the metals has been driven partly by higher demand for them for use in low-emissions vehicles. 

What is a catalytic converter? 

The catalytic converter is housed in a box on the car's exhaust system. It cleans up exhaust gases before they are expelled from the exhaust pipe. All new cars sold in Europe since 1993 have had to be fitted with a catalytic converter by law.

However, hybrid cars, such as the Toyota Auris and Prius, are popular with thieves because they have two power sources, an electric motor and a petrol or diesel engine, so their catalytic converters are used less frequently to process pollutants. That means the metals inside them are less likely to have corroded, making them more valuable – and therefore more attractive to thieves. 

On some car models, the catalytic converter hangs below other components, so thieves can slide under the vehicle and simply cut it off. Those with the unit in the engine bay are less susceptible to theft.

Older models are more likely to be targeted because their catalytic converters contain far more precious metals than those fitted to the latest cars. 

Catalytic converter theft

What are car makers doing to combat catalytic converter theft? 

Toyota is at the forefront of efforts to prevent catalytic converter theft, and has acknowledged that the second and third-generation Prius models (2004-2009 and 2009-2016) and second-generation Auris Hybrids (2012-2018) have been particular targets.

In 2019, the manufacturer introduced a protective casing for the catalytic converters on its cars called the Catloc, which it sells to owners at no profit for £189 for the second-generation Prius and £239 for other models including the previous generation Auris; both prices include fitting.

It also produces an exhaust system bundle, containing the catalyst, exhaust and Catloc, which can be fitted to Toyota vehicles that have had their entire exhaust system stolen. This costs around £1050 and is also sold at cost price, so the brand does not make a profit from supplying or fitting it. 

What can car owners do to prevent theft? 

Catalytic converter theft

Toyota has worked with the police to develop a marking scheme for catalytic converters. It has introduced a national programme to get the catalytic converters on older models covertly marked so they can be identified and traced back to the owner's vehicle if they are stolen. This will save owners money because they won't have to buy a replacement, and it will also help the police to convict the thieves more easily. Owners of older Toyota and Lexus models are being urged to visit franchised dealerships where their cars' catalytic converters can be marked for free. 

The problem doesn't only affect Toyota models; owners of all older cars, particularly hybrids, with catalytic converters are being advised by the police to take preventative measures to protect their cars. These include parking your car in a garage if possible, or if you have to park on a driveway or road putting the car next to a fence or wall with the exhaust facing it. Try not to park your car half on the road and half on the curb as this will give thieves easier access to the underside. You could also consider installing CCTV at your home or fitting the car with an alarm. 

If you do see someone stealing a catalytic converter, the police advice is not to approach them, but to contact the police.   

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