Catalytic converter theft prevention – How to + more

Catalytic converter theft comes in waves. This most recent wave (2020-2023, with no signs of slowing down) has been the most severe ever.

There have been other waves, which have come and gone, but we’ve never seen catalytic converter theft on this scale or for this long. It’s out of control. We have some opinions on why people are stealing catalytic converters, which we’ll cover later, but let’s talk first about what’s happening, and how it affects real people.

Prius catalytic converter theft

We replace more Prius catalysts than any other type. The Gen2 Prius made from 2004-2009 was the first car to be hit. The picture to the right is $22,000 worth of Gen2 Prius catalytic converters, enough to last us 1 – 2 weeks.

Our monthly Toyota invoices soared from $15,000 -$20,000 to $80,000. I suppose we can be thankful for the income during the shutdown, but replacing catalytic converters is both boring and depressing. We’d much rather be doing something productive.

Why were thieves hitting the 2004-2009 Prius and leaving other cars alone? We don’t really know.

We used to joke that they’d trade information while gathering around the tweaker campfire, swapping stories and insight amidst piles of disassemble bicycles and broken microwaves. However, I suspect the real answer is organized crime, which I’ll talk about a little later.

12 new Prius catalytic converters hanging neatly on the wall

Prius catalytic converter theft prevention

Necessity is the mother of invention, so it’s natural that people started to develop catalytic converter anti-theft devices when converter theft became an issue.

Our lead mechanic Morgan came up with the idea of cables to secure the converter to the exhaust manifold. The first anti-theft device he installed was for a friend whose converter had just been stolen for a second time on his Honda Element.

It was quickly put to the test. On the third attempt the anti-theft worked, and he woke up as the thieves were struggling with it and chased them off with a bat. Don’t do that by the way. More on why later.

Cables welded to a Prius catalytic converter for theft prevention.

Catalytic converter shield – It doesn’t work on the Gen2

Below are a couple examples of a catalytic converter anti-theft cover. On the right is a well manufactured aluminum shield made by a company called Cat Security. It’s riveted to the body of the car and blocks access to the converter from underneath the car.

But here’s the problem with using this device for the 2004-2009 Prius – the converter can be unbolted by reaching in through the wheel well. The Gen2 has no steering lock, and the wheel can be turned to the left which allows a thief to reach in and silently unbolt the catalytic converter.

The picture on the left is a do-it-yourself converter shield that remains completely undisturbed after a catalytic converter theft. I think it’s a dog crate or something similar. It would have been pretty effective if there were no access through the wheel well.

A picture of a grid of metal blocking access to where the catalytic converter used to be on a Prius.
A metal catalytic converter shield with a missing catalytic converter behind it.

Best catalytic converter anti-theft device

For quite a while we were undefeated. Thieves would try but fail.

They’d still make a mess of our customer’s cars while they tried in vain to steal the converter, but most of the time we could weld the converter back together and save our customer $2500.

You may notice that the converter in the top picture on right was attacked with an oxy-acetylene torch, which will cut through anything, including our anti-theft cables. However, it would be pretty hard to the torch past the first converter.

You may also notice that the converter in the upper picture is nearly new. The parts label hasn’t even been burned off yet. Prius catalytic converter theft is a huge problem, and the Bay Area is a target-rich environment.

Score one for the catalytic converter theft rings 🙁

Any converter protection system can be defeated. Our converter anti-theft system enjoyed a lot of success, primarily because the thief’s tool of choice is a battery powered Sawzall. Cables move around while trying to cut and are so hard they quickly ruin the saw blade.

Eventually so many Priuses were equipped with some sort of anti-theft system. If you wanted to steal a converter, you’d need to be able to defeat the converter lock.

Converter poachers added battery powered cut off wheels to their tool kit. Our theft prevention system now only slowed the thieves down.

We compare the catalytic converter cables to a bicycle lock. It would be foolish to leave a bike unlocked, but it might be stolen regardless.

How to stop catalytic converter theft

So, how to prevent catalytic converter theft then. Catalytic converter shields don’t work. Catalytic converter cables doen’t work. Is there a catalytic converter theft prevention system that will work?

The short answer is no. However, if you wanted to do everything you possibly could, I’d recommend the belt and suspenders approach. Install cables, and a cat shield, and it wouldn’t hurt to add an alarm with a tilt sensor that will sound when the car is jacked up.

The underside of a Toyota Prius with two different catalytic converter anti-theft devices installed. A shield covering the converter and cables welded to the converter and exhaust manifold.

Prius catalytic converter theft model years

What started as a problem for owners of the Gen2 Prius quickly developed into an issue for other generations. The Gen3 Prius became a target for catalytic converter theft as well. The third generation runs from 2010 – 2015.

The biggest problem for victimized Prius owners was (and still is) parts availability. The Gen3 Prius converter goes on national backorder frequently. Often owners need to wait 2 months for parts.

Another issue with converter theft on the 2010-2015 Prius is the heat exchanger built into the exhaust pipe. If the pipe is cut and the coolant leaks out it can ruin the engine. One of our unfortunate customers drove his car with a missing converter, which overheated the engine.

People stealing Gen3 Prius converters became an even greater problem than the Gen2 converter theft. We started this page with a picture of $22K worth of catalytic converters. Look to the right an behold $60,000 worth of catalytic converters. These were all installed two weeks later, but the pile never disappears completely.

25 catalytic converters laying on the floor and 7 hanging on the wall.

Does insurance cover catalytic converter theft?

Your insurance may cover a replacement converter if your converter is stolen. If you own a Toyota Prius, Honda 2003-2007 Honda Accord, Toyota Tacoma, or any year Honda Element, I’d recommend making sure you have comprehensive coverage and a low deductible. Comprehensive insurance covers things other than collisions. Fire, theft, falling trees, etc.

Also, if you own a car other than a Prius, I’d recommend paying extra for coverage that includes genuine parts.

Aftermarket catalytic converter are nowhere near as good as the original equipment. We won’t install them here because we don’t want to deal with the warranty issues.

Most insurance policies stipulate that used, reconditioned, and aftermarket parts will be used. In the case of the Toyota Prius, this isn’t a problem because there are no aftermarket catalytic converters.

However, for a Honda or other Toyota, your insurance may insist that will only pay for the cheapest aftermarket part available. If you want an original equipment catalytic converter, you’ll need to pay the difference out of pocket. How much is that? Often $1000 or more.

Having good insurance is a great, but you should also do everything you can to keep your converter from being stolen. You may need to wait two months for a part, and insurance rental coverage (if present) usually only lasts a couple weeks.

Why are catalytic converters being stolen?

A catalytic converter has a ceramic element thinly coated with a catalyst. A chemical catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction without itself being consumed in the process. Catalytic converters use precious metals as a catalyst. Metals like platinum, palladium, and rhodium.

Platinum, rhodium and palladium prices have increased, along with converter theft, since 2018. Most people consider platinum an expensive metal, and at ~$1000/oz, it is. Palladium is a little more at $1500/oz. Rhodium on the other hand is extremely expensive, with a current price of $12,000/oz.

Who is stealing catalytic converters?

Assh#!es is the short answer, but there are two flavors.

First there are the people who actually steal the converter. They’re usually drug addicts and wannabe gangsters, frequently claiming to be gang members when confronted. These people are caught and released all the time. As far as Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco are concerned, property crime isn’t a crime, just ask the manager at a Walgreens, if you can find one that’s still open in this area.

Then there are the people who buy the converters. This is the organized part of the crime ring.

There has been only a single bust that I’m aware of. It occurred in November of 2022. Some people were arrested in Sacramento and some people were arrested in Oklahoma.

Both groups processed the converters at the same “metal refinery”. Since November, after “the” bad guys were “taken down”, converter thefts have continued at the same rate.

Obviously, as long as there’s money to be made and people are going to continue stealing converters. It has been proven to be a profitable “business”.

The chemical engineering necessary to extract the platinum, palladium, and rhodium isn’t any more complicated than making meth amphetamine, and there’s no shortage of “pros” and amateurs able to do that.

Dumbass drug addicts who lack the ability to consider consequences are also in no short supply. Not that the consequences theft of catalytic converters is all that dire anyway.

What is the government doing?

Do you remember when the US was attacked by 19 Saudi citizens, and we responded by invading Iraq? Welp, that’s what our government does and they’re not going to disappoint us this time. They’ve screwed up as usual.

Proof of ownership to sell a converter

SB-1087 Now you can’t sell a converter to a metal recycler unless you can prove it came from your own car. So be sure to take some selfies with your catalytic converter in case you ever want to sell it.

But seriously. let’s remember that in the only bust of converter theft ring, the converters were being processed by the ring, not being sold to a metal recycler. But hey, let’s make Iraq, oh, I mean car owners and metal recyclers pay for this crime wave.

Catalytic converter record keeping

AB-1740 This one requires people and businesses to document information about the purchase of converters including the VIN, year, make, and model of the car the converter came from.

Of course, the VIN contains the year, make, and model of the car, but if you’re sitting Sacramento and know absolutely nothing about cars or metal recycling or the habits of organized crime, you might not know this. It doesn’t matter, go ahead and legislate.

Once again, legitimate scrap metal recyclers haven’t been involved with any criminal activity, at least as far as we know based on the single arrest of “the” perpetrators.

Catalytic converter VIN etching

SB-986 didn’t pass as far as I know. It had some rules about documentation and required etching of a VIN number on catalytic converter. Regardless, it places requirements on legitimate businesses and ignores the fact that stolen converter processing is done by an organized crime ring, who probably doesn’t care much about record keeping or checking the VIN number on converters.

More funding for CHP property crimes enforcement

AB-1653 This one funds the California Highway Patrol and makes property crime a priority. I don’t have any specific negative comments on this one.

The CHP is pretty obviously under-funded. Our freeways are literally the wild west.

No need for plates. Drive however you feel like. 50% of the cars in the carpool lane are single occupied.

My only issue with AB-1653 is that once property crime becomes a priority, and arrests are made, I kind of doubt the DAs are going to have the will to prosecute. Property crime doesn’t seem too high on the list right now. I guess we’ll see. The CHP needs some more funding regardless, so no whining from me.

The real problem with catalytic converter theft

The real problem with this is that there are a lot of people who are barely hanging on right now. They don’t have comprehensive insurance because that’s one of the expenses they had to cut. We’ve had a couple years of covid shut down, many good jobs have been replaced with gig work and low-paying Amazon-type jobs, and now in 2023 we’re seeing some major layoffs.

Imagine doing your best to stay afloat and then you get in your car to go to work and you’re $3000 poorer! Or maybe $3000 just ain’t gonna happen. Now you have no car. It’s screwed up.

Thieves aren’t just hurting people financially. They’re literally killing people.

60-year-old man shot dead in Oakland while confronting converter thief.

Berkeley man shot at by catalytic converter thieves.

Berkeley police investigate gunfire during catalytic converter theft.

This stuff is happening in neighborhoods where families live. Be careful. Thieves usually work in pairs or trios. Check the area carefully if you think you have the jump on them, or better yet call the police.