Catalytic Converter Theft

Catalytic converter theft comes in waves, affecting various types of vehicles at random. Stealing Prius catalytic converters is the new hotness. Unlucky victims will start their engines and hear a loud, “motorcycle-like” vroom from their cars. Or, you may have heard coworkers or neighbors complain nearly as loudly about experiencing a stolen catalytic converter themselves. It’s even in the Bay Area news:

KTVU – Police warn driver’s following an uptick in converter thefts.

East Bay Times – How to protect your catalytic converter from thieves

Why are people stealing catalytic converters?

The short answer is “money”. Why is it a bigger problem now than ever? Two reasons. One reason is high prices for precious metals like palladium ($2500/oz.), Rhodium ($15,000/oz.), and the comparatively inexpensive metal platinum ($800/oz.) . The other reason is high rates of homelessness and drug addiction and unwillingness or perhaps inability to prosecute and punish offenders. Here in Alameda county police arrest converter thieves, they go to Santa Rita, and are sometimes released the same day only to be arrested again. There are a lot of people who just don’t care anymore. They’re long past worrying about tomorrow, much less a court date in three months from now.

People willing to crawl under your car and steal your converter work with organized crime to harvest the precious metals from the catalytic converters. The police found 44,000 stolen converters at a single location recently. The police estimated their value at $22,000,000, but the actual cost the car owners and insurance companies is more like $132,000,000.

A graph showing a huge increase in the popularity of the search frequency of the term "catalytic converter theft" from Google search trends.
Google search trends for stolen catalytic converters peak during times of economic trouble.

How are they stealing my catalytic converter?

Thieves typically unbolt the converter from the manifold silently, snip the O2 sensor wires, and cut the exhaust hangers. Then they’ll use a battery-powered saw to cut through the exhaust piping. This will make a lot of noise, but it only takes 10 seconds or so. There are thousands of videos of thieves at work, often stealing catalytic converters very quickly.

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How can CAN I keep people from stealing MY converter?

There is no way to guarantee total theft prevention for anything in this world. However, you can increase the theft deterrence factor significantly. If your catalytic converter is harder to steal, then the thief may look elsewhere.

We provide our own catalytic converter theft prevention system. We weld in three cables from the manifold past the catalytic converter. It’s the same type of cable used in heavier bicycle locks. In addition, we weld the flange pipe bolt heads so the cannot be removed with a wrench. While it may complicate legitimate repairs in the future, it will deter many catalytic converter thieves. A reciprocating saw blade cannot cut through the cable and will get dull long before getting through even one cable.

This method was extremely successful for quite a while. Thieves couldn’t steal converters anymore. We’d only see cars without any type of converter anti-theft come in. Eventually nearly all 2004-2009 Priuses had some sort of catalytic converter theft prevention installed in our area, but then the thieves adapted and changed their tool kits.

Prius catalytic converter with braided steel cable welded
braided steel cable being cut through

Defeating converter “theft-proofing”

Thieves started to carry battery powered grinders with cut-off wheels to get through cables and bolts. These tools can cut through ANY metal. Cable, armor plating, carbide, you name it, abrasive wheels will cut it. You’re still better off with some sort of converter anti-theft device in place than without anything, but it’s not as effective as it once was.

A thief is going to start making a racket right away if the converter is locked up. This gives you a chance to confront them. However, that may not be a good idea.

Is fighting over your converter worth dying for?

Typically people stealing converter work in pairs. One is a lookout, the other works on the car. One or both may be armed. It’s best not to approach, but if you do, be sure to have a good look around first for any others. There have been many cases of converter thieves shooting car owners, and many cases of people shooting converter thieves. There have been more than a couple of thieves killed while stealing converters either by being crushed by a poorly supported car or run over while half under the car. While prosecution isn’t a real threat for a converter thief, bear in mind that many of these people don’t care about much.

Use an alarm to stop Catalytic converter theft?

As someone who lived through the 90s, I’m not a huge alarm fan. However, perhaps it’s time they made a comeback. A tilt sensor can be used to trigger the alarm, that way loud motorcycles don’t set it off. If someone starts jacking the car up, the alarm will sound. We don’t install this type of alarm here, but check in with HiTech Car Audio in El Cerrito. They probably have something that will work for you.

If there’s no way to make your catalytic converter theft-proof, what else can be done?

Insurance is best for things you can’t afford to lose as a general rule. A stolen converter will set you back $1500 – $6000 depending on your car. The popular Prius converter will cost about $3000. Most people living in the Bay Area can take that hit. The cost of living here is very high. However, what if insurance premium is priced too low for the environment? If your catalytic converter is going to be stolen 3 or 4 times, comprehensive insurance with a low deductible is a very good deal.

Give us a call to inquire about catalytic converter theft prevention measures here in Berkeley! 510-540-7093

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