Explainer: Catalytic converter thefts, and what to do about them

The value of the muffler-shaped catalytic converter — and what makes it so lucrative for thieves — comes down to what its core is made of: precious metals. Photo by Velimir Zeland/Shutterstock

Beginning next month, the city of LA is set to start cracking down on catalytic converter thefts, which have skyrocketed by triple-digit percentages since the pandemic. The problem has gotten so bad that the seemingly innocuous car parts are on backorder at dealerships across Southern California, and can take months to replace.

For car owners, the plight tends to yield more questions than answers: What makes the part such a hot commodity? What should you do — and how will you know — if yours gets stolen? And what can you do, if anything, to prevent it from happening in the first place? 

KCRW speaks with two experts, Doug Shoupe of the Automobile Club of Southern California and Patrick Olsen with Carfax, to break down everything you need to know.

More: Catalytic converter thefts make LA County ‘a hotspot’

What the heck is a catalytic converter, anyway?

A catalytic converter is a nifty component of a vehicle’s exhaust system that turns toxic pollutants like carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides into oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide.

After Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that new cars, beginning in the 1975 model year, must have the part. Today, every state in the US has a law in the books that requires vehicles to have an emissions control system.

And while requiring the piece to be installed on every car was initially controversial, it significantly reduces the amount of harmful emissions a vehicle produces — so much so that vehicles will likely fail a state’s emissions inspection without one. 

Using basic redox reactions, catalytic converters can transform around 98% of harmful fumes produced by a car engine into less harmful gasses. Graphic via Shutterstock. 

How common are these thefts?

In LA, it can seems like everyone knows someone who’s had their catalytic converter stolen — if it hasn’t happened to them directly. Catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed in recent years, especially at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when folks were driving less. 

According to insurance data from the Automobile Club of Southern California, 429 catalytic converter thefts were claimed in 2019. That number jumped by 333% to 1,856 in 2020. Then, in 2021, it jumped by 168% to 4,975 claims. Finally, in 2022, nearly 6,900 SoCal residents filed claims. 

In the city of LA alone, the number of catalytic converter thefts has also skyrocketed, according to data from the LAPD. In 2019, 1200 were recorded. By 2022, that number jumped to 8,322. Meanwhile — as of this year, more than 2,300 catalytic converters have already been stolen. 

Catalytic converter thefts aren’t just a problem Golden State residents are facing — despite the fact that California accounts for more than a third of all theft claims filed nationwide. From 2019 to 2022, thefts have increased by 1215%, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau

Why is the component so valuable?

The value of the muffler-shaped part comes down to what its core is made of: precious metals. That includes palladium, rhodium, and platinum — rare earth elements that, on the open market, are worth thousands of dollars per ounce. 

Paired with how easy it can be to steal catalytic converters — think anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes — it’s no wonder the part has attracted so much attention.

Once stolen, Shoupe says recyclers and other scrappers will pay $50 to $250 per part; the black market price can land at upwards of $1000 per part, depending on the vehicle type and location.

The good stuff: It may not look like much, but this piece of catalytic converter core contains rare earth elements like palladium, rhodium, and platinum. Photo via Tonkovic/Getty Images. 

What cars are typically targeted? 

Catalytic converter thefts are typically opportunistic, and thieves aren’t hitting just one type of vehicle. The top stolen vehicles in Southern California are the Toyota Prius, Honda Accord, Toyota Tundra, Toyota Tacoma, and Honda Element, according to AAA data.  

Some cars however, like Priuses, are more commonly targeted. That’s because hybrid converters need more precious metals to burn off emissions, and thus give thieves more bang for (your) buck. 

“That engine doesn't get as hot as a conventional engine because they use so much of the batteries,” explains Carfax’s Olsen. “So that's why hybrids are such a target.” 

How will I know my catalytic converter has been stolen?

At first glance, it might not be totally obvious your car’s been hit. But as soon as you turn the ignition and press the gas, a converter-less car will make an unmistakable roaring sound, not unlike a motorcycle. Other signs of a vehicle without the component can include unusual exhaust smells, sputtering or even acceleration, and visible damage under the car.

And yes — cars technically can run and are driveable after the converter has been stolen, but it’s not recommended; the literal hack job of a quick theft can incur damage to other parts and systems in the undercarriage that might not be visible. If possible, have the vehicle towed to a repair shop or another safe location until it’s ready to be repaired. 

So what can I do when my catalytic converter is stolen? 

First thing’s first: File a police report. It’s the best way local law enforcement can track how often and where the crimes are being committed. 

From there, contact your insurance company about how your policy handles this type of theft. Comprehensive plans typically cover the cost for its replacement. That, however, leads some car insurance holders — typically those without comprehensive coverage — to footing the bill for related repairs; the cost of a replacement part alone can range in the thousands without insurance help.

The process of replacing a stolen catalytic converter can take months and cost vehicle owners thousands of dollars. Image via BanksPhotos/Getty Images. 

Is there any way to protect my vehicle?

Yes! Drivers have the option to install a number of anti-theft devices as a deterrent. That includes protective shields, cages, or plates.

“They obstruct ready access. The shield goes over the catalytic converter. There are cable systems, which are better. Those require the thieves to actually cut several cables as well as the exhaust system to remove the cat converter.” 

Shoupe adds, “Cages are the best. The cages are the most expensive option. But they do provide the most security by encasing the catalytic converter in a steel cage, preventing its removal unless the thief cuts the entire cage structure, as well as the catalytic converter.”

If and when possible, also park in a protected location, such as a covered or monitored garage, to further prevent access to your vehicle. If that’s not an option, park in a brightly lit or highly-trafficked or -surveilled area. Be sure to also calibrate your car alarm to go off when it detects vibration.  

You can also take measures to help make your part more identifiable and potentially more easily recovered by law enforcement if it is stolen. Local agencies and other organizations hold regular etching events, where a vehicle’s identification or license plate number is carved into the catalytic converter. Drivers can also opt to have the piece painted with fluorescent paint.

But unfortunately, as Shoupe puts it, if your car’s been targeted, there’s no guarantee a shield or etching can help: “The bottom line is: If a thief really wants your catalytic converter, they will still likely get it.”

What are our elected officials doing about thefts?

Due to the exponential rise in catalytic converter thefts, state, local, and national elected officials are doubling down on finding ways to prevent the crime. 

In April, the LA City Council passed an ordinance that makes it illegal to possess a catalytic converter without proof of ownership, such as a bill of sale with photographs from its original owner, documentation from an auto shop, and vehicle registration that verifies the identification number etched on the part.  

Those found guilty of violating the ordinance can face a fine of up to $1000 or six months in county jail. 

Statewide, California legislators passed two catalytic converter-specific laws in 2022 to help curb the sale and purchasing of illicit parts. AB 1740 requires core recyclers to keep a written record of its catalytic converter purchase for at least two years. SB 1087 requires all to purchase the part from approved-sellers, such as automotive dismantlers, repair dealers, or its lawful owner.

A new bill is also floating through the California State Legislature that would make it illegal to remove a VIN that’s been etched into a catalytic converter.