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Catalytic converters are stolen from cars and sold for fast cash

Updated December 23, 2009

As the prices of precious metals continue to increase, thieves are targeting a component of automotive exhaust systems: the catalytic converter. Police and automotive experts say that the part can be stolen in less than a minute.

The catalytic converter has been a mandatory part of exhaust systems since 1975. Police across the country say they have seen a dramatic rise in thefts of the converters in recent months.

When looking inside a used catalytic converter, nothing looks salvageable, much less valuable. But hidden inside are three expensive precious metals: platinum, palladium and rhodium. Although catalytic converters have only small traces of the metals, there’s enough in them for a thief to resell stolen units for up to $200 apiece. Rhodium is among the most expensive metals on Earth, commanding as much as $6,000 per ounce on the open market. Platinum and palladium are also expensive. Scrap dealers are paying top dollar for these metals, because they bring in high profits when they are resold.

The converters are inviting targets because they’re mounted on the exterior undercarriage of vehicles, and can be removed in about a minute with any standard metal cutting tool. An enterprising thief in a crowded parking lot or garage can make off with enough converters to make $2,000 to $3,000 in 30 minutes.

These thieves are targeting shopping malls, school parking lots and busy business districts, and often hit these places during the day. Many large passenger cars, such as SUVs, trucks and vans, have two catalytic converters, making them even more enticing as a target.

Besides rendering the exhaust system inoperable, a car missing a catalytic converter can be dangerous. On some cars, if the converter’s pipe gets cut off near wiring or a fuel line or gas tank, a fire and/or an explosion could occur.

According to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Burglary Unit, the Toyota 4-Runner’s catalytic converter is the most common target of thieves. The 4-Runner sits high off the ground, and its converter is attached with four bolts that are easily sawed or cut off, which makes it simple for thieves to duck underneath the vehicle, steal the converter and be gone in seconds. Most of the reported catalytic converter thefts reported to the Cerritos Sheriff’s Station have been from 4-Runners.The Kia Sportage, which is built similarly to the 4-Runner, is also a popular target. Sportages are the easiest vehicles to get under and the converters on this car are the easiest to remove. However, any vehicle made after 1975 is a potential target.

Although a catalytic converter theft could happen in your driveway, these thefts tend to occur in high-volume parking lots and garages where dozens of vehicles are lined up.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a national trade association, said there were no national statistics on the pilferage of catalytic converters, which are generally lumped in with other motor vehicle burglary incidents. But the Institute said that there has been a sharp rise in reports of thefts, and it urged scrap dealers to be suspicious of anyone walking in with a converter.

Unfortunately, there’s not much a scrap metal recycler can do. Catalytic converters don’t have serial numbers, so they can’t be tracked. This makes it nearly impossible for a scrap metal dealer to identify a stolen converter. While police say that drug addicts are most frequently found responsible for the thefts, the treasure in the exhaust system is rich enough that it can lure anyone wishing to make money for little work.

Check with your auto dealer or mechanic and determine if the catalytic converter on your vehicle is susceptible to theft, and if so, inquire if the converter can be welded to your vehicle. This usually deters the thief because it makes the theft more labor-intensive. Also, catalytic converters can be etched with an engraving device with identifying information.

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