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Catalytic converter theft – what you need to know

Catalytic converter theft has become a major headache for UK motorists over the past couple of years. Thieves have been targeting cars that tend to have higher levels of precious metals inside the devices.

They might see it as a quick, easy, highly profitable hit. But it’s a serious business for car owners, with some vehicles even having to be written-off due to the damage caused by catalytic converter theft. But there are steps you can take to reduce the risk.

Catalytic converter under the body of a car 

What is a catalytic converter?

A catalytic converter is a control device that changes your car’s exhaust emissions so what actually gets emitted is less toxic. It’s a small metal chamber located about a third of the way down the exhaust system under your car. Catalytic converters are designed to alter the chemical nature of the car’s emissions. 

Within the catalytic converter chamber sits a honeycomb structure that contains various precious metals. These play a key role in tackling the more harmful gasses flowing through the exhaust system.

Palladium is used in combination with platinum to cut the level of air pollution emitted by the car. Through oxidation, more dangerous pollutants like carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons are converted into carbon dioxide (CO2). The catalytic converters found in modern cars also deploy platinum and rhodium to combat poisonous nitrogen oxides (NOx) gasses. 

What cars are targeted for catalytic converter theft?

Hybrid cars have been particularly targeted by thieves in recent years as their catalytic converters tend to offer a higher concentration of precious metals than average.

It means UK owners of cars like the Toyota Prius, Toyota Auris and Honda Jazz have been especially hard hit by the phenomenon. Certain Lexus models have also been common targets.

Cars with high fuel efficiency tend to contain more precious metals because they’re less prone to corrosion versus conventional cars. In a hybrid, an electric motor takes much of the pressure off the petrol engine, and by extension the catalytic converter. In response to this growing crime, manufacturers have changed designs to put thieves off, so the newest models don’t tend to be the obvious targets. 

For instance, for the Toyota Auris, it’s the second generation models manufactured up to 2018 that face the highest risk. With the Prius it’s the models that were released up until 2016 that thieves tend to prey on most.

However, cars and commercial vehicles that are higher off the road are also in the firing line because it’s relatively easy for thieves to get under the car. This includes all SUVs and crossovers.

Along with the fuel efficiency factor and the ease of access, thieves often keep targeting the same model. This is because they build up experience in removing that particular catalytic converter.

This means they’ve got a better chance of stealing the catalytic converter quickly and undetected. According to the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC), over 15,000 catalytic converters were stolen in the first half of 2021 alone. As you might expect, thieves also have a preference to certain models when it comes to stealing cars

Catalytic converter theft prevention 

It seems so easy for thieves to steal catalytic converters. But there are some steps you can take to make catalytic converter theft less likely, as there are with car theft prevention in general.

Where you park. Parking your car inside a private garage is an obvious way to prevent catalytic converter theft. Thieves need to get under the car to steal the catalytic converter. So, parking next to walls or fences is a simple catalytic converter theft prevention technique to consider. When you’re away from home, parking your car in a more visible place might help deter thieves. If parking out on the street at night, you should also try to choose a spot that’s well lit. 

Cameras and alarms. You could install CCTV at home or a dashcam in your car to monitor your car when it’s parked in your driveway. A catalytic converter thief might equally be deterred if they see a dashboard camera in your car. You could also get an alarm installed in your car and put a car alarm sticker on one of the windows to put thieves off. 

Anti-theft devices. Given the rise in catalytic converter theft, various devices have emerged to make it more physically difficult for thieves to remove catalytic converters. Toyota is among those to have developed an anti-theft device to protect catalytic converters - Catloc. If your catalytic converter is just bolted on then you could also consider asking a garage to weld the bolts as this makes it more difficult to remove. 

Etching or watermarking. You could get a garage to etch a serial number onto your catalytic converter, so it’s easily traceable in the event of theft. Toyota has also been running a catalytic converter theft prevention programme offering invisible watermarking to help catch thieves. 

Do diesel cars have catalytic converters?

Most diesel cars have a catalytic converter, with the majority of diesel cars made since 2001 having them as standard. This, however, was nearly a decade after catalytic converters became standard in most new petrol cars.

If your diesel car was made after September 2009, it should also have a diesel particulate filter fitted in the exhaust system to filter out soot. 

While the catalytic converter found in diesel cars essentially does the same job as in a petrol car, there are some differences. Because diesel gases have high-oxygen content, rhodium isn’t effective in breaking down the harmful NOx gasses as it does for petrol exhaust systems.

Diesel catalytic converters therefore don’t contain rhodium and rely on a diesel exhaust fluid additive instead. 

Is catalytic converter theft covered by car insurance?

If your UK car insurance policy covers theft, then you should be insured if someone steals your catalytic converter. So, if you have a third party fire and theft policy or fully comprehensive car insurance, then you should be covered. It’s always worth checking your policy to be absolutely sure. 

Making a claim means you could sacrifice your no claims bonus and face higher car insurance premiums. But the full cost of getting your car fixed properly following a catalytic converter theft could easily be £1500 or even more. This is because thieves often damage the car in their hasty extraction of the prized catalytic converter. 

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How much is a catalytic converter?

The cost of a catalytic converter varies depending on the exact make and model of your car.

For example, a new replacement catalytic converter for a Toyota Prius could cost anything between £140 to £480. This is because the type you need depends on the Prius model you own and when it was made. There’s also the cost of labour to factor in if you need to have a new catalytic converter installed.

Assuming you need the £480 catalytic converter and labour costs £100, then the replacement cost would be £580. 

But what if the thieves have also done some serious damage to your car? Victims of catalytic converter theft often find the full price rises to over £1500 once the cost of any damage is factored in as well.

Some vehicles have even been write-offs as a result of catalytic converter theft and the destruction this causes.

Due to the precious metals content of catalytic converters, thieves might be able to sell catalytic converters for hundreds of pounds even as scrap. Palladium and rhodium are both worth more than gold, at £43 and £250 per gram respectively. Platinum sells for over £22 per gram. 

How long does it take to steal a catalytic converter?

If they know what they’re doing, thieves can steal a catalytic converter in minutes. Between five and ten minutes is typical, though some catalytic converters can be removed in less than two minutes. 

For catalytic converters that are just bolted on to the exhaust system, thieves only need a spanner to undo the bolts. Catalytic converters fitted in this way tend to be the quickest and easiest for thieves to steal.

Alternatively, thieves can use battery-operated saws to steal catalytic converters that are welded in. It means your car is potentially at risk any time it’s parked in an exposed place. Thieves are also known to use a combination of methods when it comes to stealing cars.

What happens if you drive without a catalytic converter?

If your catalytic converter has been stolen, one of first things you should notice is that the car sounds much louder than usual. A roaring sound is typical as soon as you start the engine.

Along with a dashboard warning light telling you to check the engine, you might even find that the car just doesn’t start at all. If you do get the car going, aside from the unusual noise, you might have problems accelerating. Your car’s fuel efficiency might also plummet. 

Driving without a catalytic converter is illegal because your car is emitting toxins above the legal limits. This means you could face a fine for not complying with emissions standards – £1,000 for a car or £2,500 for a van.

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