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How can car owners protect themselves from the catastrophe that has swept the country?
According to State Farm, the largest auto insurer in the United States, whose customers reported more than 43,200 stolen catalytic converters this year, stolen catalytic converter claims doubled in the year to June 2022.
And since 2019, converter theft is up 1,215%, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an industry group that tracks insurance-related crimes.
On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced the arrest of 21 people in connection with a crime ring accused of making $545 million from trafficking stolen catalytic converters.
Catalysts – which help a car clean its exhaust – have become a target for theft in large part due to the price of precious metals such as palladium and platinum used in the parts.
And, crucially, their position on the outside of the underside of a car makes them easy to steal, the NCIB’s David Glawe told NPR earlier this year.
Stealing a converter only takes a few minutes and a battery powered saw. “You slide under the car, you cut through your exhaust system and you’re usually in and out within 30 seconds to a minute,” Glawe said.
Cars with enough tire clearance for a thief to easily slide under, such as SUVs and pick-up tricks, are particularly at risk. Hybrids are also attractive targets because the converters contain even more precious metals due to their low emissions.
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 law enforcement have recommended a wide range of anti-theft measures to deter a would-be thief. “It’s a holistic approach,” said Glawe.
The simplest solution is to keep your car out of the public eye when you are not using it. If you have access to a garage, leave 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 may 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 pull on major freeways, drive down the freeway. If they see a truck parked by the side of the road, they stop, climb under it, cut it off, walk away and then they’re gone,” he told Todd Foreman, the group’s head of law enforcement, at a conference earlier this year.
Some cities have held workshops where car owners can have their VIN engraved on their catalytic converter for free – an indication to potential buyers that the catalytic converter has been stolen.
Other solutions might cost a bit of money: on the cheap side, a brightly colored high-temp paint can deter a thief who would have to scrape everything before selling. Owners can also install alarm systems that are triggered by the vibration of a thief saw.
Other more expensive anti-theft devices are designed to attach to a converter to make removal more cumbersome. Mechanics can also weld metal plates or rebar to shield the converter.
What should I do if it’s stolen?
If your converter is stolen, you will probably find out immediately: without the converter, your car will be much louder than usual.
Most cars will run without a catalytic converter, although it is not advisable to do so any longer than necessary. Because the purpose of a catalytic converter is to reduce harmful emissions, cars without a catalytic converter pollute much more than a healthy car, and you might fail an emissions test in states that require it.
When thieves use a saw to remove a catalytic converter, they can also damage nearby parts of your car, like 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 car insurance coverage covers non-accident damage to your car – including theft.