Why thieves are targeting your car's exhaust

Thefts of catalytic converters have risen six-fold since 2018, with hybrid cars extremely likely to be targeted.

Car exhaust

Naming the world’s most expensive precious metal is a great quiz question. Forget gold or even platinum, the correct answer is rhodium. Good news for quiz masters, not so great for drivers of older hybrid cars. The high price of this precious metal is driving a dramatic increase in thefts of catalytic converters (cats) from the exhaust system of cars. 

Reported thefts of cats rose to 13,000 throughout England and Wales in 2019. That represents a greater-than six-fold increase over 2018. Meanwhile the AA says insurance claims for stolen cats have gone up more than 10 times during the same period, to 393. The majority of those victims are drivers of hybrid cars such as the Prius and Auris from Toyota, and Honda’s Jazz and CR-V.

This dramatic increase in theft is being driven by two things: rocketing prices of the precious metals contained in cats and the number of hybrid cars on the road. That, however, is little consolation to drivers who’ve had their cat stolen: replacements can cost anywhere between £500 and £2,500 depending on the car.

2019 Honda CR-V Hybrid

Catalytic converters are an integral part of the exhaust system of modern internal combustion engines. They contain a honeycomb of the precious metals rhodium, palladium and platinum. When these are heated, the chemical reaction with the exhaust gases passing over them results in less harmful emissions. 

So far so good. But rhodium is ultra rare. In October 2020, it was priced at £8,490 an ounce. Palladium is £1,864 an ounce; platinum the poor relative costing a mere £671 an ounce. Compared to five years ago, the price of rhodium has gone up by four times; palladium by nearly six times. Stealing catalytic converters is now well worth the moderate risk. 

The thieves’ modus operandi is crude. Some crooks will slide under a car with an angle grinder. Others employ the same kind of hydraulic cutters that the fire brigade uses to cut people out of crashed cars. Whatever the tool, two cuts and they can be away in less than a minute. Hybrid cars are targeted because they’re partially propelled by electric power meaning the precious metals aren’t as degraded as those in regular petrol or diesel cars.

Platinum and palladium are found in catalytic converters, as well as jewellery.

There’s nothing new in cat theft. They’ve been stolen steadily from vans and small trucks over the past decade. But recently, thieves have started hitting private cars. Dave Lees is operations manager for Catloc, a company that makes devices securing catalytic converters to vehicles. He told us: “There seems to be a new kind of cat thief. Those who were hitting vans weren’t violent. Those targeting parked cars are a different breed. Victims have had guns pulled on them, knives, physical threats. It’s organised crime now.”

Assistant Chief Constable Jenny Sims, car crime lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) confirmed: “There is a link to serious organised crime. The people taking catalytic converters know exactly which cars to target, where to find them and how to get the cats off quickly.”

Catloc has been in business since 2012. As it supplies individuals, dealerships and manufacturers, it can build an accurate picture of how the crime is developing. Mr Lees explained: “It almost spread model by model. It was the second-generation Prius, then it was the third. We’ve seen the Honda Jazz targeted and the Lexus RX 400h.

The Toyota Prius is often targeted for the metals in its catalytic converter

“There was one gang that started stealing them from car dealers’ compounds in the north west and it moved down the country. It hit Derby one day, Nottingham the day after and eventually reached London. Then it went back to the dealer where it had begun just for good measure. It took 500 cats over a three-week period. One dealer lost more than 50 in a weekend.”

One of the big losers of this increase in cat theft has been Toyota. Up to 2019, it was replacing 50 to 60 catalytic converters a year. In 2019, that number shot up to around 4,500. It currently has a waiting list for Auris cats because of the spike in thefts. 

As Toyota no longer made cats for the effected cars, a spokesman revealed it paid its supplier to reopen the line to make Auris cats. Similarly, Toyota retooled a factory in Japan to produce cats for older Prius models. “Toyota doesn’t make any profit on replacement cats,” the spokesman added. Even so, a new catalytic converter for an old Prius will cost £600 to £700.

There is now a waiting time for hybrid Toyota Auris replacement catalytic converters.

Part of the problem is that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act of 2013 isn’t enforced by local authorities as it should be. This is legislation designed to prevent metal recyclers paying cash for raw materials. However, there are plenty of unlicensed operators who will buy cats for cash, no questions asked. These are then stripped down, the precious metals extracted and sold in powder form into industry. 

At the moment there’s not much drivers can do to stop the problem. Devices like Catloc will deter thieves from the vehicles they’re fitted to. But the crooks will just move onto softer targets. ACC Sims from the NPCC explained: “We are working across law enforcement agencies to put an end to this. That includes working with car makers to take precious metals out of cats and working with the Home Office to take cash out of the scrap metal system as there are loopholes in the current legislation.”

Thefts of catalytic converters are unlikely to slow unless value of the scrap metals fall.

Nonetheless, cat theft in 2020 is continuing as it did in 2019. A spokesman for AA Insurance said: “January and February were busy but it tailed off in March and April because of lockdown. It then started to escalate again in May. We’ve had some customers who’ve had their cat stolen and replaced it only for it to be stolen again.”

Dave Lees from Catloc added: “We’ve heard of people having them nicked while they’ve been in hospital car parks. There was even a private ambulance company that had the catalytic converters taken from its vehicles during the first COVID outbreak this year.” Where precious metals are concerned, thieves are no respecters of pandemics or personal tragedy.