While car thefts and break-ins have become a rising concern, many car owners are discovering that a specific car part has gone missing. Catalytic converters, a part of your car’s exhaust system, have become a popular target of many vehicle thefts. The reason isn’t because of the part itself, but rather what’s inside.

The number of reported catalytic converter thefts has spiked astronomically in recent years. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, there were 3,389 thefts in 2019, which jumped to 14,433 in 2020. One of the reasons why the numbers have climbed is due to how easy it is to remove a catalytic converter. Thieves can slide underneath a car without having to jack it up and remove a catalytic converter in a matter of minutes.

Henry Long, a Burlington resident experienced this firsthand. “I live in the Bayberry Commons Apartments,” said Long. “It was the second week in June, about 3:30 am on a Monday. The neighbors said they heard a couple of men slide under the car without jacking it up, cut out the catalytic converter, and were gone within 90 seconds.” Following the incident, Long filed an online report on the Burlington Police Department’s website. We reached out to Burlington Police for comment but have not heard back.

A catalytic converter is designed to convert harmful engine-exhaust pollutants into something less harmful.   It contains three valuable metals: rhodium, palladium, and platinum. All three metals can fetch a lot of money on the market, but it is mainly the rhodium that people are after. Rhodium is considered to be the rarest metal on Earth and is worth around $14,000 per ounce and $450 a gram. Palladium is worth around $1,830 per ounce and $58.87 per gram. Lastly, platinum is worth around $849 per ounce and $27.30 per gram.

Catalytic converters can contain about 3-7 grams of platinum, 2-7 grams of palladium, and 1-2 grams of rhodium. Thieves can expect to sell catalytic converters to scrap yards for around $50 to $300, who will then sell the converters to recycling plants, where they extract the precious metals.

Thieves aren’t just targeting homes but in some cases they’re going right to the dealership. Vermont State Police is investigating a case where catalytic converters were stolen from cars parked in the St. Johnsbury Subaru parking lot overnight. Surveillance determined that the converters were stolen on July 8, between 3:33 and 3:48 am.

“Anecdotally, we have heard of a rise in this type of crime,” said Adam Silverman, Public Information Officer for VSP, however, specific numbers were not available. “There isn’t a code in our records system specifically for catalytic converter thefts, so there’s no way to find only the number of those incidents without going through every single theft case to see if a converter was stolen.”

“We have had a few converter thefts,” said Lieutenant Chris Bataille of the South Burlington Police Department. “The bottom line is that any time the price of scrap metal goes up, it provides further incentive for folks to engage in this sort of behavior.”

While thieves are selling the converters for around $50 to $300, car owners are paying through the roof to get converters replaced and their cars fixed. Long, who owns a Toyota Prius said the quote he received was about $1800, but his insurance was able to cover the costs. “If it was someone else, they could have had their ability to earn a living stolen from them.” One auto parts shop provided the following costs for direct replacements for popular car models in the area:

  • Honda CRV 2.4 engine – $595
  • 2017 Subaru Outback 2.5i – $670
  • 2014 Toyota Tundra 5.7 engine – $829.99
  • Volvo XC70 3.0 engine – $1733

These prices do not include an estimated $85-100 per hour charge for shop labor.

Some states around the country have attempted to curb catalytic converter thefts by introducing new legislation. In Vermont, Representative Terri Williams of Essex-Caledonia District sponsored H.301, an act relating to limiting the transport of catalytic converters. According to Sheriff Trevor Colby of Essex County, thefts and sales to scrap dealers have been taking place late at night.

“If there is a curfew on transportation it gives law enforcement the opportunity to seize the items if you add that into the statute,” wrote Sheriff Colby in an email to Rep. Williams. “We have no right to seize what is likely just been cut off from someone’s car. If the law makes it unlawful for them to transport and allows us to seize the item late at night then it will help narrow the window.”

The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development did not act on the bill, citing that there were many ways for thieves to get around this if it were voted into law.

Some states have already passed legislation to prevent catalytic converter thefts. In Maine, all new and used car dealers must engrave the VIN on the converter itself. All recyclers must also engrave or permanently mark the VIN or the recycler’s license number and stock number.

While the bill was not enacted, Rep. Williams is hoping to write another bill next session.

“There are two major reasons why I will continue to pursue this,” said Rep. Williams. “For one, we are here for the people and one of those people asked me to see what I could do to help. Two, I don’t see an end in sight to this major issue. Something must be done and done soon. One thought from another representative was to put identifying numbers on the converter itself. This, as they say, would be “an act of Congress”, something that should be considered.” She noted that she is open to hearing all suggestions on further steps in ending this crime.