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Rise in catalytic converter thefts fills up dealership service departments

There has been a sharp increase in the number of catalytic converters being stolen across the country, resulting in vehicles stacking up in dealership service departments as customers endure costly and lengthy repairs and manufacturers, police and legislators search for a way to curb the thefts.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau said there were 14,433 catalytic converter thefts reported in the U.S. in 2020, the last year figures were available. That’s a fourfold increase from 3,389 theft cases reported in 2019. In 2018, there were just 1,298 thefts reported. Officials hinted that 2021 figures could show a dramatic increase.

On one day in April in Houston, AutoNation Toyota Gulf Freeway had 66 vehicles waiting to have their catalytic converters replaced after thieves stole them. Two of those vehicles were back for a second time after being targeted again.

While any vehicle can fall prey to thieves, some Toyota models are coveted because their catalytic converters have a higher concentration of precious metals than those of other manufacturers, so they command higher prices.

Pickups such as Toyota’s Tundra and Tacoma are popular with converter bandits because they can have up to four converters and sit relatively high off the ground. That makes it easier for thieves to slip underneath and use a cordless saw to remove the mufflerlike converters, said Craig Fletcher, service director at AutoNation Toyota Gulf Freeway. Toyota Prius hybrids and SUVs and certain Honda four-cylinder vehicles are also particularly prized, as are Ford F-Series and Ram 1500 pickups.

“It’s been a constant problem for the last 12 months,” Fletcher said. “Approximately a year ago, the price of the materials that Toyota uses for the converters went through the roof.”

Catalytic converters contain just a few grams of costly metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. The rare elements react with combustion gases to reduce the amount of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide in a vehicle’s exhaust.

Rhodium’s current market price is about $16,600 per ounce. Platinum is trading for around $919 an ounce, while palladium is in the neighborhood of $2,200 per ounce.

The skyrocketing value of the converters makes comprehensive auto insurance a must-have, said Sgt. Tracy Hicks of the Houston Police Department’s Auto Theft Crime Task Force. Replacing catalytic converters can run as high as $11,000, depending on the vehicle and any collateral damage to items such as wiring and fuel, transmission or coolant lines.

Hicks said certain Toyota converters were bringing $2,000 when the price of the metals skyrocketed last year.

Depending on the market price of metals, the powertrain and type of vehicle, recyclers will pay up to $1,500 for a single catalytic converter, said Doug Seliger, marketing director of PGM of Texas, which specializes in catalytic converter recycling. A set of four Tundra converters, for example, is currently bringing $500 to $1,000, he said.

Cheaper, riskier alternatives

Consumers could also benefit from having an insurance policy that covers long-term car rentals. The rampant crimes are resulting in lengthy wait times to get customers back on the road. Fletcher noted one customer’s Tundra had been at the Houston Toyota dealership at least 147 days. He said converters are ordered for each specific vehicle and can take weeks to arrive.

“A group of converters for one side [of the vehicle] will come in, while the parts for the other side will show up later,” Fletcher said. “Very seldom do all the converters come in at the same time.”

Adam Haner, service director at Helfman Motors in Houston, said replacement catalytic converters are on “intergalactic back order.”

“Having to tell customers they’re facing weeks of delay before they get the converters and can use their vehicle [again] has been the hardest part of my job in my 19 years here,” he said.

In some cases, victims who didn’t have comprehensive coverage or waited so long for original replacement parts that their rental car coverage expired have turned to cheaper, less reliable aftermarket catalytic converters. One Toyota technician said some customers, at their own cost, have had muffler shops weld in tubing to patch the exhaust system just to get their vehicles back on the road.

Even if the damage seems minor, such as when the thief gives up and just leaves a saw cut in the exhaust tubing, Haner doesn’t recommend or perform what he calls “Band-Aid” fixes.

“If you weld the pipe up, it could cause further issues down the road,” he said. “There’s just too much potential liability. Plus, we just try to do the right thing.”

AutoNation Toyota Gulf Freeway and other dealerships sell and install anti-theft catalytic converter shields that are available through a number of aftermarket vendors. Fletcher says the devices range from $750 to $900 installed per vehicle.

A Toyota accessory guide offers a dozen catalytic converter shields for various models, from the 2001 Prius to the 2022 Tundra, Sequoia and Tacoma.

Still, with sticker prices ranging from $160 to $570 for the parts alone, the devices are not for everyone, said Paul Le Blanc, service director of Longo Toyota in El Monte, Calif.

“We only see two to three [shield sales] per month from parts,” he said. “One of the reasons why is the cost. I believe most people who buy them probably had a converter stolen already.”

A legislative fix?

Toyota Motor North America called catalytic converter thefts an industrywide challenge and told Automotive News it was committed to working with all stakeholders to protect vehicle owners.

“In our view, the most effective approach requires close collaboration between the broader automotive industry and local and state authorities to devise legislative solutions aimed at eliminating the market for these stolen parts,” the automaker said in a written statement.

Catalytic converter rip-offs have taken a more violent turn as more hardened criminals attempt to cash in. Confrontations can turn deadly. In Houston, an off-duty sheriff’s deputy was fatally shot in March during a parking lot gun battle with three men who had targeted his vehicle as he and his wife shopped at a supermarket.

In January, U.S. Rep. Jim Baird, R-Ind., introduced the Preventing Auto Recycling Thefts (PART) Act. If passed, the legislation would aid law enforcement by requiring VINs be stamped onto catalytic converters of new vehicles, setting up stricter record-keeping of buyers of catalytic converters and codifying catalytic converter thefts as criminal offenses.

“This is a clean, straight-forward bill that has the potential to solve a serious problem plaguing far too many vehicle owners and law enforcement officials across the country,” Baird told Automotive News. In April, the National Automobile Dealers Association called the measure a legislative priority and urged lawmakers to co-sponsor the bill.

Baird said he was hopeful the bill would gain bipartisan support because he believed it would close loopholes preventing law enforcement from holding converter thieves accountable.

“Americans have enough to worry about,” he said. “Spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars replacing a required car part shouldn’t be one of them.”

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