Catalytic Converter Thefts Are On The Rise: Here's Why

May 20, 2021

A catalytic converter on a Volkswagen Vanagon
Credit Vanagon Blog / Flickr

Thefts of a part found underneath a vehicle are causing problems for individuals and organizations in the Ozarks.  Between January 1 and April 30, 2021, 337 reports of catalytic converter thefts were reported to the Springfield Police Department.  

Springfield police have arrested a total of 14 people since January (seven were announced on May 13) for their involvement in the theft of catalytic converters.  Those are parts of a vehicle’s exhaust system that reduce harmful emissions, according to Ridwan Sakidja, a professor in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Materials Science at Missouri State University.  Catalytic converters convert toxic gases that come out of your vehicle’s exhaust system into gases that aren’t as impactful to the environment.

"Typically, when you look at the product of your combustion, you're going to get a lot of nasty stuff, basically carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide," said Sakidja.  "These are very dangerous for the environment.  So, what this catalytic converter does is basically convert these gases, these toxic gases, into less harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, such as water and nitrogen."

He said the reason the vehicle parts are so enticing to thieves is because they contain a small amount of precious metals.  They’re called platinum group metals, and there are three major ones.

"Platinum, palladium and rhodium," he said.  "Rhodium is the most expensive one.  Palladium is second, and the least expensive one's platinum, but these are expensive metals."

He said the price per ounce of platinum is currently around $1200.  Since the metals are heavily used for catalytic converters, and there’s been a growth in demand for passenger cars, those metals are worth more.  It’s a matter of supply and demand. 

The U.S. plays a big role in the manufacture of catalytic converters, according to Sakidja, but it’s a very competitive business.  There are also major players in Europe, he said.  And, since the metals aren’t mined in the U.S.—the vast majority come from South Africa, Russia and Zimbabwe—the recycling industry plays a big role.

"So, the recycling portion of supplying these metals is key to maintaining competitiveness," he said.

The police department said in a statement that it “continues to avidly pursue those who choose to steal catalytic converters.”

But it said it can be difficult to identify and prosecute those responsible for the criminal act.  That’s because of how fast the crime can take place and how quickly they can be sold for scrap.  And the parts having no identifying numbers.  Sakidja hopes that, in the future, new cars will have an i.d. on their catalytic converters to deter thieves.

Replacing a vehicle’s catalytic converter can cost anywhere from $400 to more than $2000 depending on the quality of a converter and the type of vehicle, according to Advanced Auto Parts.  And thieves can only get around $20 to $200 from a scrap dealer, according to Edmunds.com.

You'll know you're the victim of a catalytic converter theft if you start your vehicle and the engine is much louder than usual.  You'll hear a loud roar that will get louder as you push the gas pedal.

Ellen Harbig is community development coordinator for The Kitchen, Inc., which works to place homeless individuals and families into permanent housing.  She knows firsthand the frustration of being the victim of catalytic converter theft.  The Kitchen, Inc. has been targeted six times since September 2019. The latest theft was last December.  Five were taken from the organization’s box truck and one from the company’s van.  And Harbig said, when the vehicles are out of commission, her organization isn’t able to help as many people.

"We move...about five to 10 households into a home each month, and so, if we, you know, have to take the time to repair the box truck, that may limit how soon a family can get into their home or maybe they can get into it but they don't have everything they need," she said.  "They may still need beds for their children.  Some units don't have refrigerators, so if we are providing that it may take a little bit for it to get to them."

Fortunately, donors stepped up each time to cover the cost of repairing the vehicles.

The Kitchen, Inc. has cameras at their new location at Chestnut Expressway and Glenstone, and they keep the vehicles in a well-lit area to try to deter thieves.

The Springfield Police Department advises parking in areas that are visible to passing traffic and that have good security lighting so your vehicle is visible to the public.  Consider having your catalytic converter marked with your vehicle’s VIN, license plate number or some other identifying feature.  Talk to neighbors and work together to monitor each other’s property and report suspicious behavior.  And if you’re a victim of catalytic converter theft, report it to your local police department.