By Travis Gillmore
Catalytic converter thefts are creating havoc in cities across the country, with thousands of drivers victimized and forced to pay for costly repairs after criminals cut out the devices from under their vehicles.
Incidents nationwide are up 1,215 percent between 2019 and 2022, according to data released by the National Insurance Crime Bureau in January. The agency shows 3,400 stolen in 2019, approximately 14,500 in 2020, and more than 50,000 in 2021.
But experts warn the actual number of such thefts is much higher, as the figures account for only those victimized who have full-coverage insurance. Drivers carrying only standard liability insurance, as required by most states to operate a motor vehicle, are not covered in the event of catalytic converter theft.
“Approximately 90 percent of replacements are fully insured,” said a spokesperson for Orange County Muffler, an automotive shop located in Costa Mesa specializing in catalytic converter replacements. “Some without insurance have to trash the car because the cost to repair is more than the price to replace.”
Carfax estimated more than 153,000 catalytic converters were stolen from vehicles nationwide in 2022 and the New York City Police Department reported a four-fold increase in incidents last year.
California accounted for more than 18,000 catalytic converter theft insurance claims in 2021 and the insurance crime bureau reported the state’s tally represented 37 percent of the national total.
Southern California is a hotspot, with its high population density and the number of cars parked on streets at night creating theft opportunities. Popular entertainment and shopping sites including Irvine Spectrum and South Coast Plaza have been targeted, even though the lots are lit and security is present.
“The theft of catalytic converters has been increasing the last five to seven years,” said Garden Grove Police Detective Sergeant Willie Holloway in an email to The Epoch Times April 10. “The rate of theft varies depending on the current prices of the metals inside them.”
Pricey Precious Metals
The value of a catalytic converter lies within its core, where some of the rarest minerals on the planet are used to reduce exhaust emissions.
Platinum, palladium, and rhodium are the elements that make the devices effective at removing particulates, and the prices they fetch are driving illicit demand.
Well-known in the fine jewelry world, platinum is highly desirable selling for $1,007 per ounce, as reported April 7 by Kitco, a global firm specializing in precious metals pricing and research.
Palladium, used in a wide variety of electronics and industries from aerospace to dentistry, is also valued at $1,400 an ounce, according to Kitco.
But the element driving the catalytic converter chaos is rhodium, the rarest of all non-radioactive metals, used in optical instruments and in the jewelry trade.
It peaked in price in 2021 at $27,000 per ounce, according to Kitco but has since fallen to $6,900 as of April 7.
While the price of sellable materials has dropped, demand for catalytic converters has not.
“The crimes come in waves, and December was slow, January was light, but we saw a huge increase in February,” the spokesperson for Orange County Muffler told The Epoch Times.
Some customers have experienced repeated losses, with one Prius owner targeted three times, according to the shop.
“We replaced her converter, and she paid a $500 deductible, but declined the option to add a $350 protective shield because it was not covered by insurance,” the spokesperson said.
Twelve days later, her vehicle was struck again, and she refused the shield a second time.
“The third time it happened, her boyfriend bought her a shield, and we haven’t seen her since,” he said.
Investigators covering catalytic converter thefts discovered that aftermarket products designed to protect the devices are proving effective.
“We haven’t seen any thefts on vehicles with the shields installed,” Sgt. Frank Gonzalez of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department told The Epoch Times.
The cost to repair a missing catalytic converter runs between $1,000 and $5,000 depending on the make, model, and state where the vehicle is registered.
Those hybrid vehicles contain a higher concentration of precious metals, making them more expensive to purchase, and more attractive to thieves.
A list compiled by Carfax this year of vehicles targeted for their catalytic converters by region illustrates hybrids, nationwide, are targeted more than gas-powered automobiles, most notably the Mitsubishi Outlander and the Toyota Prius, especially in the southern region of the country.
Converters used in all vehicles in California are more efficient, and expensive, due to stricter emission standards. The state accounts for nearly 30 percent of all thefts, according to data compiled by State Farm, the nation’s largest automobile insurance agency.
The situation is being described, by some, as a crisis.
“Everyone knows someone that’s had this happen to them,” said Scott Williams, an Anaheim restaurant worker who was recently victimized.
Williams said he parked his Toyota Prius on the street near his home after working a night shift waiting tables, but when he went to drive it the next day, his plans suddenly changed.
“I knew it as soon as I started my car, it sounded terrible, and now I need to come up with a couple thousand dollars that I don’t have,” he said.
While the National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates most criminals are selling stolen catalytic converters for $25 to $300, law enforcement investigations are revealing a higher level of sophistication by some operations, with one criminal syndicate’s revenues totaling more than half a billion dollars.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced a nationwide takedown in November 2022 of organized criminals operating in at least nine states. Over the course of the investigation, 21 arrests were made.
Federal indictments unsealed in the Eastern District of California and the Northern District of Oklahoma describe law enforcement executing more than 32 search warrants, with seizures totaling millions of dollars in assets, including bank accounts, cash, homes, and luxury vehicles, according to a statement released at the time.
“This national network of criminals hurt victims across the country,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement announcing the arrests. “They made hundreds of millions of dollars in the process—on the backs of thousands of innocent car owners.”
The government is seeking forfeiture of more than $545 million related to the case, seeking to seize assets acquired through illicit operations.
“Just like the precious metal in every catalytic converter, there’s a money trail at the core of every criminal scheme,” IRS Criminal Investigation Chief Jim Lee said in the same statement. “Our agents and partners are incredibly well-versed at unraveling financial trails, and this case is not unique.”
Lee said he is hopeful that the charges will have a far-reaching effect.
“There are real victims here—friends, neighbors, and businesses—and our hope is that these arrests will deter similar criminal activity,” he said.
Organized criminal elements were also suspected of thefts in 2022 in Orange County and the Los Angeles Area, according to the Garden Grove Police Department.
Holloway, the detective from that police department, told The Epoch Times that a “criminal street gang hit dozens of locations in Garden Grove and adjacent cities,” and the suspects were driving “high-end performance street cars including Dodge Hellcats and Corvettes and would initiate vehicle pursuits with police.”
Police say thieves are emboldened by the quick nature of the crime—usually less than two minutes to cut a converter off a tailpipe. While it is advised to park in well-lit areas, police are warning that lights do not stop thefts from occurring.
With the number of cases skyrocketing, drivers are looking for ways to keep their vehicles safe and avoid an expensive trip to the mechanic. Several manufacturers are now making cage-like devices to strengthen security, and auto mechanics report they are having success installing additional protective measures to prevent theft.
Newer generation vehicles are also addressing theft concerns, and mechanics say that the measures being employed make it much more difficult to steal the devices.
Additionally, nearly 100 legislative proposals across the country are currently targeting the problem, with a variety of approaches being considered. New Jersey has 11 bills currently on the floor, and all but 10 states have at least one.
Federally, Representative James R. Baird (R-Ind.) introduced the Preventing Auto Recycling Theft Act in October 2022. The bill would provide $7 million in grants to stamp Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) on devices, and would make it more difficult for buyers to purchase stolen equipment, with penalties including fines and imprisonment of up to five years for stealing catalytic converters or distributing them and their minerals.
Some drivers are choosing to have the VIN etched onto their converters. This could prevent thieves from selling the device, as the number makes any subsequent transaction traceable with department of motor vehicle databases.
Others say etching is not a perfect solution, due to those criminals who don’t resell the converter intact but only extract its minerals for selling.
Looking for Solutions
Scientists are additionally searching for methods to achieve emissions goals without the need for expensive materials.
A discovery in March by researchers at the University of Central Florida that atomic platinum holds potential for converters operating on minuscule amounts of metals, is groundbreaking, they said.
Legal experts say by eliminating the need for large amounts of precious metals, the price of catalytic converters would drop precipitously, and with no monetary motive, thefts would follow suit.
Some mechanics suggest the thefts will stop only after all the valuable, unprotected devices have been removed.
“Once all the cats are stolen from the old-gen models, there won’t be anything left worth stealing,” the spokesperson for Orange County Muffler said.