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, polluting the environment. 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’s quick enough that it can happen in a public parking lot without much notice or a driveway during the daytime. In addition to the catalytic converter being easily accessible, 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 can you tell that your catalytic converter has been removed? The shocking roar as the engine starts up is the first clue, especially if it increases in volume as the vehicle accelerates. The driver may also 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 you may notice an uptick in exhaust fumes.
As this is often a crime in which whole neighborhoods are targeted on the same night, knowing who has doorbell or security cameras can be helpful, as can starting a neighborhood watch group.
Catalytic converters are 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.
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.
Car owners should make sure their vehicles are visible to as many people as possible at all times, or lock them away completely. Parked in the garage with the garage door locked, the vehicle is about as safe as it can be, but if that isn’t an option, parking in the driveway close to the home makes it more intimidating for thieves to approach, knowing that there’s a possibility that they’ll appear on a security or doorbell camera at the home or homes nearby. 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. 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 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. 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.
If your 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. 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 decide to attempt a theft. 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 if you live in areas where thefts are on the rise or if you 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 your home and property as well.
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