For many criminals targeting automobiles and looking to make a quick buck, the “cat’s” out of the bag – in the form of catalytic converters, that is. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, catalytic converters thefts have skyrocketed 1,215% from 2019 to 2022. Even the famed Oscar Mayer Wienermobile found itself part of that statistic after having its converter stolen. The criminals, no doubt, take the pilfered auto part from the brand synonymous with deli meat and turn it into bread in their pockets.
CARFAX reports that as many as 153,000 catalytic converters were stolen last year and authorities say that number could be on the rise.
What Are Catalytic Converters?
- Since 1975, catalytic converters have been required in every automobile in the U.S.
- Its purpose is to filter harmful gases/pollutants and emissions from a vehicle’s exhaust. T
- They are found on the underside of every vehicle between the engine and muffler.
- When removed, cars produce an unmistakably loud engine noise and an increase in noxious fumes.
Catalytic converter theft is a crime that has hit every region of the country from commuters parking on the street, to driveways, to parking lots and garages. And while car owners have undoubtedly felt the frustration and pain, perhaps no one has been more impacted financially by catalytic converter thefts than the auto dealer industry. Having huge lots full of inventory makes them an enticing target.
“Do I feel like a sitting duck? Every single day. They are the most valuable thing on every car and generally not protected,” says Jason March.
March is the General Manager of March Motors in Jacksonville, FL and knows firsthand just how financially devastating the result can be. He also knows how quickly criminals can strike. Several months ago, he had eight pickup trucks targeted which were parked overnight in his fenced in lot.
“It doesn’t take long with the right tools,” says March. Surveillance cameras at his dealership caught three men with power tools cutting a hole in his fence and sawing out sixteen converters in 30 minutes before getting away in an awaiting vehicle.
The rise in the popularity of catalytic converters among thieves isn’t so much about the importance of the device but the value of the stuff in which it’s made of. While it may never replace the wow factor of a gold bracelet wrapped in a powder blue box, it just might be more precious.
Why Are They so Popular for Theft?
- Catalytic converters contain valuable metals: palladium, platinum, and rhodium.
- All three of those metals are currently priced higher than gold.
- Converters can fetch anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a thousand dollars each on the black market.
Typically, the crime plays out like this. Criminals work in teams of two to three people. One person acts as a lookout while another person raises the vehicle with a jack before sliding under the vehicle and cutting out the converter. Then they flee in an awaiting getaway car.
Richard Kolko, a former FBI agent and security expert, says that it’s a routine that criminals have gotten down pat, and one they are constantly improving on. “The more you do something, the better you get at it.”
According to CARFAX, the vehicles which are most targeted for catalytic converter thefts are Toyotas, Hondas, and Fords. The most heavily preyed upon vehicles tend to be hybrids and pickup trucks. Hybrids because they contain larger amounts of the coveted metals and pickup trucks because the larger vehicles often are outfitted with two convertors. Pickups have the added benefit of being higher off the ground which eliminates the need for criminals to use additional equipment, like a jack to get under the vehicle.
Despite the popularity of those automobiles among these “cat” burglars, CARFAX points out that the popularity of specific models of vehicles varies by geographic region and that by and large, this a crime of opportunity.
Kolko says vehicles always come with a bullseye. “Whenever there is a situation where a vehicle is left unattended for long periods of time, it appeals to criminals because it allows them time to work without detection or worry.”
For car dealers like March, the effects of catalytic converter thefts have ripple effects that hit them financially far beyond just a missing part.
“Not only do we have the sunk cost of a stolen part to replace, but we have to pay for the labor and replacements.” The cost of labor can be high as each replacement converter can be a challenge to retrofit back under the car. After all, a quick getaway doesn’t really lend itself to clean work or surgical precision. March explains, “each cut is unique – some straight, some jagged, some crooked. It takes additional time.”
And that’s even if you can get your hands on a replacement. Due to the explosion of thefts and supply chain issues, catalytic converters are backordered nationwide on an average of about three to four months.
Overall, costs can run roughly two to four thousand dollars per vehicle when all is said and done. In fact, March estimates that he’s lost roughly $36,000 in the past year and a half due to stolen “cats.”
To add insult to injury, the lost revenue doesn’t stop there either. Once car dealers replace a stolen catalytic converter from a new vehicle, they are unable to sell that car “as new,” which affects their bottom line.
How Can Dealerships Prevent Theft?
- Keep cars parked in well-lit areas in secure lots. Criminals are more likely to strike areas that are covered in darkness.
- Move higher targeted vehicles to more secure locations.
- Install anti-theft cages covering the catalytic converters to make it more difficult to steal.
- Etch VIN numbers (ID numbers unique to each vehicle) onto the catalytic converters. This makes them easier to identify, trace, and link to vehicles.
- Install surveillance cameras.
Kolko emphasizes that when it comes to crime, prevention is key. “You never want to be in position of trying to catch someone in the act or after the fact. You want to stop it from ever happening to begin with.” March agrees and has implemented many of these tips in his own dealership since the thefts and has seen positive results.
In fact, his security cameras were integral to helping authorities identify those individuals responsible for breaking into his dealership. According to March, authorities are looking into a connection between those perpetrators in connection to a larger, more sophisticated catalytic converter theft ring.
March admits that with additional preventative measures comes an additional cost, but he feels it is well worth the investment. “I want to do anything I can to prevent this from happening or at least do everything I can to slow them down.”