Imagine this: you go to the supermarket, remember to lock your car, but when you come back out, your car sounds like a washing machine from hell as you drive away. What could have possibly happened in that short span of time that you were picking up your groceries for the week? Well, unfortunately, some criminal may have come along, quickly snuck under your car, and stolen your catalytic converter.
If you’re unaware of what a catalytic converter is, then you probably aren’t taking the proper precautions to make sure yours doesn’t get ripped right off the bottom of your car. And with the value of this car part rising on the black market, more and more criminals are turning to catalytic converter theft to make a quick buck. Let’s take a look at what catalytic converters are, why they’ve literally become more valuable than gold, and how you can protect yourself from becoming a victim of catalytic converter theft.
What Is A Catalytic Converter?
A catalytic converter is basically a part of the exhaust system of a car that reduces the amount of toxic gas that a car releases into the atmosphere. Once toxic gases are released from the internal combustion engine of a car, the gas is filtered through the catalytic converter where they undergo a redox reaction that transforms them into less harmful gases.
The carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrocarbons produced by the burning of fossil fuels enter the catalytic converter. These gases pass through a honeycomb-like structure within the catalytic converter, forcing them to react with the precious metals inside and converting them into water vapor and carbon dioxide, which are much less harmful to the environment. In order for these chemical reactions to take place, the catalytic converter needs to be around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why this component is often located very close to the engine itself.
The honeycomb structure within the catalytic converter is lined with platinum group metals, or PGMs, which have certain chemical properties that allow them to trade carbons or hydrogens with the toxic gases that they come in contact with. The types of PGMs used in catalytic converters include platinum, palladium, and rhodium, which are all very valuable.
Pretty much every gas-burning car has a catalytic converter. While some people choose to willingly remove their catalytic converter (those extremely loud cars that wake you up in the middle of the night), doing so is terrible for the environment and is federally illegal. Older internal combustion cars have a “two-way” catalytic converter, which converts carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and removes hydrocarbons, while newer internal combustion cars have “three-way” catalytic converters, which do everything that “two-way” versions do as well as remove nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. Diesel-burning cars have a different kind of catalytic converter that’s specially made to deal with compression ignition diesel engines, and electric vehicles don’t have any catalytic converters at all because they don’t produce any harmful emissions.
Why Are People Stealing Catalytic Converters?
People have been stealing catalytic converters since they were invented. However, it has recently become more of an issue as catalytic converter theft has seen a huge spike in recent years. So, why are people stealing them so much more now? Well, those PGMs that make catalytic converters work have always been fairly valuable, but in recent years, their price on the black market has gone up significantly.
Once again, the three types of PGMs used in catalytic converters are platinum, rhodium, and palladium. And while you’ve probably heard of platinum and associate it with expensive jewelry, it’s actually the least valuable out of the three. And while the current price of platinum is lower than that of gold, palladium and rhodium are both more valuable per ounce than gold, with one of those two beating out gold by a huge margin.
According to Kitco Metals, a metal price speculation company out of Montreal, Canada, the current price of gold per ounce (as of the time this article is being written) is about $1,800. The price of platinum is just over $1,000 per ounce, the price of palladium is sitting around $2,700 per ounce, and the price of rhodium is right around $19,000 per ounce. That’s right, rhodium is literally more than ten times as valuable as gold at the current price. With that being said, it’s no wonder that thieves are looking to steal catalytic converters and sell their PGMs on the black market.
As was previously mentioned, catalytic converter theft has never been as prominent as it has been in recent years. So why are criminals suddenly so interested in stealing these car parts?
Why Is Catalytic Converter Theft on the Rise?
Stealing a catalytic converter has never been more lucrative for criminals because the prices that palladium and rhodium are fetching on both legal and illegal markets have never been higher. The primary use for these metals is, in fact, in catalytic converters for internal combustion cars, so much so that around 90% of rhodium demand in 2019 was for catalytic converters.
The global demand for catalytic converters has gone up considerably in recent years as foreign governments are increasingly starting to impose emissions standards for car manufacturers. In particular, the massive economy of China has shown an increased demand for palladium and rhodium for catalytic converters, which has been the main driving force behind the price spike for these two PGMs.
While the demand for these PGMs has increased significantly in recent years, the supply has been entirely unable to keep pace. The vast majority of palladium, rhodium, and platinum mining occurs in operations in Russia and South Africa; however, these mining operations are primarily geared toward the collection of other metals and only collect PGMs as a byproduct.
So, essentially, the demand for PGMs for catalytic converters in recent years has spiked with improvements in global emissions standards while the supply of these PGMs has remained low. As a result, some not-so-honest manufacturers are turning to the black market to get their hands on PGMs by any means possible, and thus criminals are selling stolen catalytic converters for exorbitant prices.
People have been stealing catalytic converters out of parking lots, from dealerships, from auto body shops, and even off the bottom of school buses. And with this crime becoming so popular in recent years, there are some precautions that everyone should be taking to protect their catalytic converter.
How To Prevent Catalytic Converter Theft
Unfortunately, stealing a catalytic converter is a fairly simple operation and often only takes a minute or so. Why would car manufacturers make such a valuable component so easy to remove? There doesn’t really seem to be a good answer to that question. So, it’s up to you to make sure that your catalytic converter is protected from theft.
First of all, a good way to protect yourself from theft is to park your car in a garage or in a well-lit area whenever possible. This will deter thieves from crawling under your car for fear that they might be seen.
Another way to prevent theft is to adjust the shock sensor on your car’s alarm. You can usually find a dial about three inches below the dashboard on the driver’s side that will allow you to turn up the sensitivity on your car’s alarm. That way, if someone shakes your car by fiddling with the catalytic converter, it will set off the alarm and probably scare off the thief. Unfortunately, you’ll probably also find that other minor vibrations can set off your car’s alarm, which can get pretty annoying.
A pretty good strategy for preventing catalytic converter theft is to install and cage around your catalytic converter on the bottom of your car. You can find these cages online and install them fairly easily, or you can build your own out of rebar or some kind of metal piping. While a determined thief with a reciprocating saw could probably still get through your cage, it’s going to make it a lot more difficult for them and most thieves probably wouldn’t even bother.
Another option for protecting yourself from theft is to get a dashboard camera. While this may not stop criminals from stealing your catalytic converter, it may help law enforcement catch the thief, and it could help you out in an insurance claim.
Replacing a catalytic converter can be very expensive, so it’s probably better to shell out the money for some method of theft prevention than to take the chance of driving around with your catalytic converter unprotected, especially when so many criminals these days are going after them.