With the price of scarce metals rising across the globe, thieves are mining catalytic converters found on cars, SUVs and trucks to the dismay of insurance companies, law enforcement agencies and state legislators — as well as the owners.
“We have seen a significant increase during the pandemic. It’s an opportunistic crime,” says Tully Lehman, Public Affairs manager for National Insurance Crime Bureau in an e-mail to TheDetroitBureau.com.
The NCIB counted 3,389 thefts in 2019 which increased 325% in 2020 to 14,433.
Lehman says as the value of the precious metals contained within the catalytic converters continues to increase, so do the number of thefts of these devices. “There is a clear connection between times of crisis, limited resources, and disruption of the supply chain that drives investors towards these precious metals,” he said.
Rare means pricey
The catalytic converters contain platinum, palladium and rhodium. A recent search on KITCO.com showed a 2021 high for rhodium going at $27,000 an ounce from March 19-22. Recently, according to KITCO.com, Rhodium is at about $13,250 an ounce. Palladium reached a high in 2021 of $2,890 an ounce on May 6. Recently, palladium hit $2,009 per ounce. And lastly, platinum reached a high in 2021 of $1,266 on Feb. 19, but it was at $1,075 per ounce about one week ago.
Typically, thieves will receive $50-to-$250 per catalytic converter they turn in to recycling facilities, according to the NICB.
The NICB adds thefts of catalytic converters tend to be from bigger vehicles like large pickups and delivery vehicles.
These trucks are targeted due to higher clearance and therefore easier access to the catalytic converter. These vehicles are often used as fleet vehicles which often attract thieves as company trucks are usually stored in yards and are left unattended overnight allowing a criminal to go in and remove a few in very short order.
Toyota Prius targeted
But another popular target of thieves is the Toyota Priuses, which contains two catalytic converters as well as the fact that as a hybrid, these converters tend to see less wear (corrosion) than those of other vehicles with equal miles, and therefore more valuable to thieves.
In addition, the catalytic converters of hybrids need more of the precious metals to work properly since they don’t get as hot as those installed on conventional vehicles.
Theft claim frequency for 2004-09 Prius models was more than 40 times higher in 2020 than in 2016, HLDI analysts found. Theft claim frequency was 58.1 claims per 1,000 insured vehicle years for 2004–09 Toyota Prius models in 2020, compared with 1.4 claims in 2016.
“Car thieves know their market,” said HLDI Senior Vice President Matt Moore. “The demand is high for catalytic converters, and they seem to know which ones command the highest prices, like those on the older Priuses.”
The recent scrap price for the GD3+EA6 catalytic converter used in the 2004-09 second-generation Prius 1.5 was $1,022, according to marketplace website AutoCatalystMarket.com, while the scrap price for the GP1+TB1 converter used in the 2010-15 third-generation Prius was $548.
In comparison, the converter used in General Motors models such as the Chevrolet Impala and Pontiac Grand Am from 1999-2006 was valued at $269, and the converter used in the 2007 Ford F-150 FX4 was priced at just $143.
Processing catalytic converters for their metals requires sophisticated equipment, but bulk scrap buyers have mushroomed with the spike in prices for certain metals. All but a handful of states require buyers to record sellers’ driver’s license numbers or other official identification, and many prohibit cash payments above a certain threshold. However, because catalytic converters are not stamped with vehicle identification numbers, it isn’t easy to identify stolen components once they have been sold as scrap.
New laws target stolen catalytic converters
But state legislators are taking notice of the rising number of thefts of catalytic converters.
In Ohio, for example, legislators have introduced a bill, which seeks to ban the sale of catalytic converters on cars without proof of ownership. The bill brands catalytic converters as “special purchase articles” under the law, making it illegal to be sold to any entity without proof of ownership.
The bill’s intent is to protect consumers from catalytic converter theft and create more transparent guidelines for businesses.
“Catalytic converter theft is on the rise here in our state and across the nation,” noted one of the bill’s sponsors. “Currently under the law, there is no accountability on these stolen items, and they are easily taken from people’s vehicles.
“It’s my hope with this bill that we stop the sales of these converters to help our consumers, businesses and environment. Catalytic converter theft harms businesses, individuals, insurance companies, the environment, and puts an undue burden on law enforcement.”