Is your vehicle at risk of being targeted by precious metal thieves? Catalytic converter thefts have risen sixfold in the last year. New data reveals there were nearly 13,000 catalytic converter thefts from vehicles in 2019, compared with just 2,000 in 2018.
The data - which was released to police forces in England and Wales as part of a Freedom of Information investigation by BBC Radio 5 Live - revealed that motorists in London were particularly at risk and that the epidemic of catalytic converter theft is largely from hybrid petrol/electric vehicles.
Victims of catalytic converter theft are faced with a hefty repair bill and increased insurance premiums, or even difficulty finding a new insurer when their old insurer refuses to renew. Not only does it cost hundreds of pounds to source a replacement part, but damage done to the vehicle during the theft - such as electrical wires being cut - means repair bills tend to end up somewhere between £1,000 and £3,000.
Thieves can steal converters from a vehicle in a matter of minutes – and often return once a new one has been fitted. Aviva said: “We recently replaced a catalytic converter for a London-based customer after it was stolen, only for it to be stolen again just six hours after the customer had their car back from the garage.”
A backlog in sourcing new catalytic converters has compounded the cost for insurers, who often have to pay for weeks of car hire as they scour the country for a replacement converter.
As well as residential areas, thieves are known to target inner-city car parks. Spates of catalytic converter thefts have been reported from NHS workers’ cars parked outside hospitals.
Stolen catalytic converters are usually shipped overseas, where they are stripped for the precious metals contained within them - including palladium, rhodium and platinum.
In 2008, palladium sold for about $180 (£135) per ounce, but recently it has been trading at $2,350.
The price of rhodium has been known to soar above $10,000 per ounce – six times the price of gold.
Older hybrids are targeted as they contain more of the precious metal than newer models, which sometimes means the metal in the catalytic converter is worth more than the vehicle itself.
It is estimated that thieves make £300 to £500 from every converter stolen, fenced through scrap metal dealers, with vehicle manufacturers warning that a gap in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 enables unscrupulous dealers to buy them without checks required on where they came from.
Hybrid vehicles are targeted because they have two power sources – electric and a petrol or diesel engine – so their catalytic converters are used less frequently to process pollutants. This means the metals inside them are less likely to corrode, making them more valuable and more desirable to thieves.
West Yorkshire Police have said that vehicles with higher chassis, such as a 4x4 or an SUV, are often targeted due to ease of access.
The Guardian reported on a Prius that had been targeted twice. Owned by the Taylors in south London, the first theft happened in the evening while the Prius was on their driveway. “My wife spotted some men by the car, but by the time I ran down, they had gone in a flash. They do it with the speed of a Formula 1 wheel changer. With the converter gone, it sounds like the worst diesel tractor in the world.” That theft and a second on the same vehicle cost around £1,200 each, with the owner having to pay the £250 excess each time.
Karen Gardiner from Sidcup in south-east London told the Guardian that the catalytic converter on her 2009 Lexus hybrid was stolen while parked on her driveway. “The alarm did not go off – I didn’t hear a thing. But when I turned the engine on, it sounded like a moped. It could only do 10mph when I drove it to the Lexus main dealer.
“They said theft was so rife that it will be at least six to eight weeks before they could get hold of a new converter. So I rang around and eventually found a garage that had one. I paid £1,300 on a car only worth £5,000. I’ve now had a cat lock fitted, so it can’t be easily stolen again, but the insurer wouldn’t pay for that. It also means the car has completely changed – it’s noisier and vibrates more. I don’t feel like it’s the same car.”
How to avoid catalytic converter theft
Assistant Chief Constable Jenny Sims, car crime lead for the National Police Chiefs' Council, said: “Police forces across the country are involved in planning and undertaking intelligence-led operations, at both the regional and national level, to stop converters from being stolen, as we recognise the devastating impact these crimes can have upon the lives of victims.”