Catalytic Converter Thefts Soar During Pandemic

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an average of 1,203 catalytic converters were stolen each month in 2020 compared to just 282 per month in 2019, an increase of more than 325%. And that average is deceiving, as thefts really began to skyrocket during the last few months of the year, with 2,347 in December alone.1 Local reports indicate that the pace is continuing in 2021.2

A pair of hands removing a catalytic converter from a car.

Catalytic converters, a small muffler-like device that help control pollution from auto emissions, have always been a target for thieves, because they contain precious metals more valuable than gold and are easily accessible under the car, between the engine and the muffler. (If your car sounds like a jack hammer, your converter may be gone.)

Converters have been required on most U.S. cars since 1975, but more recent strict emissions regulations in China and other countries have sent the value of the precious metals – palladium, rhodium, and platinum – soaring to record levels. Cars sitting idle during the pandemic have been easy targets, and economic hardship may have made the easy money more appealing. Thieves typically sell the part to a junkyard or recycler for $50 to $250, and some models might fetch as much as $500.3–4

A new converter could cost $1,000 to $3,000, one good reason to have comprehensive insurance, which covers theft of the car, its parts, or its contents, as well as damage to your own automobile resulting from vandalism, falling or flying objects, animal collisions, fire, explosions, earthquakes, and weather-related risks such as wind and flood. All coverage is only up to policy limits.5

Better Theft Protection

Preliminary data indicates that thefts of whole cars also increased in 2020, with a little more than 873,000 stolen motor vehicles, up 9% over 2019. However, over the 26-year period from 1991 to 2019, thefts have declined by 43%, primarily because anti-theft technology has made it more difficult for thieves to steal cars without getting caught. Older models with less sophisticated theft protection are statistically more likely to be stolen, a fact that helps explain why the average value of a stolen automobile was $8,886 in 2019.6

Poaching Parts

Along with catalytic converters, thieves who can’t drive away the whole car often steal airbags, car tires, rims, xenon headlights, and global positioning systems (GPS), which are targeted because of their high street values. Keep in mind that comprehensive coverage typically applies only to GPS systems and other components that are permanently attached; unattached units would be considered personal property.

Tempting Targets

Some valuable items that are frequently stolen from inside vehicles include laptops and tablet computers, cellphones, portable GPS units, purses, wallets, cameras, tools, and sunglasses. In the event of a break-in, coverage for stolen personal property may be limited to $250 or less under a typical auto policy. However, victims who lose one or more valuable items due to theft may be covered up to a higher limit (after paying a deductible) under their standard renters or homeowners policies.

Protecting Your Car and Its Contents

Taking the following protective steps on a consistent basis may help reduce your vehicle’s exposure to theft.

  • Park in well-lit areas whenever possible, always lock vehicle doors, and never leave spare keys in the vehicle.
  • Don’t entice thieves by leaving valuables in plain sight, and keep in mind that credit cards or mail (such as bank statements) left behind in a purse, wallet, or storage compartment could compromise your identity and credit history.
  • If you intend to hide valuables in the trunk, transfer items before you enter a crowded parking lot. Criminals may be watching you or your car from the time you pull into the area.
  • Keep in mind that walking away from a car while it is still running, even for a few minutes, can make it an irresistible mark.

Some car owners have taken additional steps to secure their catalytic converters, such as installing a heavy metal cage around the converter (which can be pricey) or having it etched with the vehicle identification number or license plate number, which some police departments will do for free.

Coverage at a Reasonable Price

In general, comprehensive coverage costs significantly less than liability or collision coverage. Premiums depend on both the current value of the automobile and the level of risk to which it may be exposed, which means you will pay more if you live in an area where claims are prevalent. Insurers will look closely at the perceived level of risk in your specific ZIP code. You can save on premiums by carrying a higher deductible. For example, increasing the deductible from $200 to $500 could save 15 to 30%.7

Comprehensive coverage is optional, but lenders typically require it. Some people who own older vehicles free and clear may sacrifice the extra coverage for the sake of lower insurance costs, but you might find that it offers a sense of security that may be worth the extra cost.