Catalytic Converter Theft Prevention: 5 Tips For Worried Vehicle Owners

This critical part of a vehicle’s infrastructure is an easy and valuable target for thieves. These tips for catalytic converter theft prevention will help defend against opportunists looking to profit off your investment.
Meghan Wentland Avatar
catalytic converter theft prevention
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Q: Our local police department recently sent out an alert about a rise in catalytic converter thefts in our area. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not actually sure what a catalytic converter is or why somebody would steal one—or how to prevent someone from doing so. What steps can I take toward catalytic converter theft prevention? 

A: This is a great question. Many people are in a similar situation of knowing the term but not what it means, and most people probably couldn’t identify a catalytic converter or point to where it sits on a car. How can someone prevent the theft of something when they don’t know where it is?

So what is a catalytic converter? And what does a catalytic converter do? As a combustion engine runs, it generates fumes and chemicals that are emitted through the vehicle’s exhaust systems (yes, even in hybrid vehicles!). Prior to 1974, this harmful exhaust simply spewed out into the air, damaging the environment and polluting the air. Catalytic converters are part of every exhaust system installed since 1974, and their function is to convert the pollutants into neutral gases that aren’t harmful to people or the environment. The mechanism contained in catalytic converters that creates this reaction involves several precious metals. Platinum, palladium, rhodium, and other metals are used in varying quantities inside the converters, and the market value of these metals is significant enough that the resale value of a converter is, for many thieves, well worth the few minutes it takes to steal one. When the values of these precious metals are particularly high, catalytic converter theft increases.

Unfortunately for vehicle owners, it is exceptionally easy to steal a catalytic converter, especially if the thief has small, cordless power tools in hand. It takes minutes—and it’s quick enough that it can happen in a public parking lot without much notice or in a driveway during the daytime. Organized thieves can target a whole neighborhood overnight. In addition to the catalytic converter being easily accessible (especially in vehicles that have higher ground clearance, such as SUVs and pickup trucks), it’s not immediately apparent that anything has been stolen; should a resident glance out a window after motion lights are triggered in the driveway, there will be no indication that anything is amiss. So how does one know that their catalytic converter has been removed? It’s as simple as starting the car. The shocking roar as the engine starts up will be the first clue, especially if it increases in volume as the vehicle accelerates. The driver may notice some spluttering or uneven acceleration, and a glance underneath the vehicle should show a gap in the exhaust system that is visible even to those who don’t know much about car components. The check engine light may flash on, and drivers and passengers may notice an uptick in exhaust fumes. The crime itself may be subtle, but the signs that it has occurred are not.

So how can car owners protect their vehicles against catalytic converter theft? First, they can consider coordinating approaches with neighbors; this is often a crime in which whole neighborhoods are targeted on the same night, so knowing who has doorbell cameras and security cameras can be helpful, as can starting a neighborhood watch group. There are a number of steps that owners can take to make the theft more difficult and more visible, and to make it harder for thieves to profit off of the crime in the event that they’re successful. A combination of these techniques will shore up car owners’ defense against this simple but costly crime.

Call local law enforcement or a muffler store to ask which vehicle models have been targeted in your area.

While the catalytic converter is fairly easy to access on most vehicles, it’s definitely easier to access on vehicles that are raised high enough off the ground for a thief to just slide underneath the car, cut the piping, and go. Therefore, tall SUVs and pickup trucks are easier targets. However, some vehicles, such as hybrid cars, are also attractive targets; because their engines run at least part of the time on electricity, not gasoline, their catalytic converters don’t run as hot as those of fuel-powered vehicles, and so more of the precious metal remains inside the converter. Sometimes a particular group of thieves will target a specific make or model of car that they’ve practiced on to make the theft quicker and more efficient.

Car owners can check in with their local police departments and muffler shops to ask if there’s a focus on particular vehicles in their area. But even if the car owner doesn’t drive a frequently targeted vehicle, they shouldn’t let their guard down. It’s still a good idea for drivers to take additional measures to secure their vehicle and their property and prevent catalytic converter theft.

catalytic converter theft prevention
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Etch your VIN onto your catalytic converter or paint it a different color so it can be identified if stolen.

Most scrap dealers and metal recyclers are fair-minded businesspeople who have no real interest in taking part in a crime. How much is a catalytic converter worth? Thieves will sell their goods to scrap dealers or recyclers for between $20 and $200, and the dealer or recycler can then separate the precious metals and resell them for up to $6,000 per ounce, depending on the metal and market prices. This is a considerable sum, but not enough to cause most businesspeople to knowingly sell stolen goods. Dealers and recyclers want to stay in business, so if there’s a clear indication that the converter was stolen, they will likely pause before purchasing.

Thieves don’t want to take the time to steal something they can’t sell. As a result, making a converter stand out from others is a way to make it less appealing to thieves in the first place. Owners can paint their catalytic converter a bright color to make it stand out in a field of gray sheet metal. They can also visibly etch the vehicle identification number (VIN) of their vehicle onto the converter body so that it’s not an anonymous piece of metal. Thieves might file it off, but the filing will be equally noticeable. These measures may or may not prevent the initial theft, but they may be helpful in identifying the converter as stolen and may help identify the thieves should they be caught with it or reported by a scrap dealer or recycler.

catalytic converter theft prevention
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Park your car in a well-lit area, on your driveway, or inside your garage at all times.

Car owners should make sure their vehicles are as visible as possible to as many people as possible at all times, or even lock them away completely. Parked in the garage with the garage door locked, the vehicle is about as safe as it can be; thieves looking for an easy grab won’t want to deal with breaking and entering or a confined space. If the garage isn’t an option at the home, parking in the driveway close to the home makes it more intimidating for thieves to approach, knowing that there’s a real possibility that they’ll appear on a security or doorbell camera at the home or homes nearby. Lighting is also critical. Darkness and shadows invite thieves to come closer without danger of detection, while light makes the home inhospitable to criminals, so providing ample lighting overnight can make a home safer overall.

When away from home, drivers can take care to park in areas close to buildings or walkways that are well lit. The more pedestrian traffic that passes by the vehicle, the less likely it is that a thief will target it, as even the 2 minutes of privacy necessary to steal the catalytic converter may be hard to come by. Similarly, in most commercial parking lots, only the first few rows of parking spaces are covered by security cameras, so parking in those areas is desirable, as thieves will choose vehicles that are outside of camera range.

catalytic converter theft prevention
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Purchase and install a catalytic converter anti-theft device to make it harder to steal.

Catalytic converter theft is a quick process, so anything owners can do to make it take longer or be a bigger hassle is likely to send the thieves elsewhere. Having the converter welded into place or welding the bolts so they cannot be turned makes it far more difficult to pull off. Drivers can also consider adding a catalytic converter shield or catalytic converter anti-theft device.

Several companies have responded to the increase in thefts by producing after-market devices that can secure and protect a catalytic converter, making it difficult or impossible to remove. Some of these devices resemble a cage that surrounds the converter and a part of the vehicle’s frame, while others look more like a panel that has to be removed with different tools than the thief has likely brought with them.

These devices can be installed at a body shop or garage, and while they incur a cost, it’s much less than the $1,000 or more it will cost to replace a stolen converter. The answer to the question of “how much is a catalytic converter?” varies based on the vehicle, but $1,000 is a reasonable starting point. This cost can be offset by filing a claim through an auto insurance company (renters insurance generally covers theft, as does homeowners insurance, but only for items stolen from inside the car; the theft of a car or its parts would be covered by the comprehensive portion of auto insurance after the deductible as been met), but the small cost of securing the converter to the car seems worth it to avoid this hassle. Again, these devices don’t make it impossible to steal a converter, but they make it more labor-intensive, noisy, and time-consuming.

If the vehicle has a security system, another option is to set the system to sound if the car experiences vibration in addition to impact. Should a thief try to use a saw or powered wrench on the underside, the alarm will sound and hopefully scare them away.

catalytic converter theft prevention
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Install a security system that includes motion detectors and cameras near where you park your car.

Catalytic converter theft prevention is a multilayered task. Researching the commonly targeted vehicles in the area, parking in areas of high traffic that are well lit or indoors, and installing shields or securing the converter to the vehicle are all helpful measures to take. But catalytic converter thieves are brazen, so it’s worth adding one of the best home security systems, including cameras pointed at the driveway to catch thieves in the act.

The cost of security camera installation, as well as motion detectors and motion detector lights, could be well worth it if it deters thieves from even attempting to approach the home. Additionally, choosing a type of home security system that includes a mobile app and notifications will give the homeowner time to turn on more lights and even alert the authorities, further deterring the intruder if they still decided to attempt a theft.

Homeowners may ask themselves whether home security systems are worth it, and the answer is that a functioning system that includes cameras, alarms, and alerts can be an excellent deterrent when paired with other easy ways to keep thieves away from the home. When triggered, a security system can alert law enforcement, and the homeowner can potentially even address the thief through the speaker on a doorbell camera.

Especially for those who live in areas where thefts are on the rise or for those who own an often-targeted vehicle, a security system of this kind adds a significant layer of catalytic converter protection on top of those already in place, and it has the added benefit of protecting the rest of the home and property as well.