Cat burglers: the victims of catalytic converter theft

Chris King became so stressed about thieves targeting his Toyota Auris for a second time that he sold it and now travels by bus.

“The first time they stole my car’s catalytic converter was in April at quarter to one in the morning,” he says. “I was woken by a loud crash, followed by a car screeching away. I had the converter replaced with a new one, but my neighbours said it would only be targeted again. They were right. Three months later, the thieves returned, this time in daylight at seven o’clock in the morning.”

The crooks managed to only partially saw through the new converter before fleeing. A neighbour got some grainy footage of them on his mobile phone, but they were all wearing masks and had removed their car’s numberplate. According to figures obtained from police forces in England and Wales by BBC Radio 5 Live, 13,000 catalytic converters were recorded stolen in 2019, compared with 2000 the year before. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that in reality, these numbers are far higher.

What attracts thieves to the converters is the precious metals – rodium, paladium and platinum – that they contain and whose prices have risen steeply in recent years. Easily the highest-riser is rodium. In 2014, an ounce cost around £750, but today the same amount will set you back £9000, or seven times more than gold.

Because their converters are less contaminated by exhaust gases, hybrid cars are favoured by thieves, although SUVs of all makes are also targeted for the easier access they offer to the vehicle’s underside. A new replacement converter costs around £1000.

Toyota’s website carries reports from owners of Auris and Prius models whose converters have been stolen. Hugely increased insurance premiums (some by as much as 600%) and even being refused cover are among the problems they claim to have experienced, while others accuse the company of not doing enough to alert prospective car buyers to the issue.

Toyota says that to discourage theft it has reduced the precious metals content of the converters it fits to its newer models, while making available a converter-locking device at cost as well as tilt alarms and component etching. It says it’s working with the government and police forces to raise awareness of the problem and tighten up legislation.

Videos uploaded to YouTube of thieves stealing converters show how brazen the crooks are. A car containing the gang will pull up alongside the target vehicle, occasionally in broad daylight. One of them stands guard while an accomplice jacks it up. Another crawls underneath it to saw off the converter and, once it has been removed, his mate releases the jack and they’re gone. Around 60 seconds is all it takes.

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Mark Silvester, a West Midlands Police crime prevention manager, says legislated checks on scrap dealers must be done: “Converter theft is a hard nut to crack, but tougher enforcement of scrap dealers is a good place to start. We’ve got clean air zones and our fair share of hybrids and as a result we’ve seen a rise in converter thefts.

“Many of these stolen converters surface on internet sales sites, so we’ve launched pop-up advertisements warning people about rogue parts when they’re browsing. We’ve also identified and raided over 100 chop shops where stolen cars are broken for parts. If someone calls us at 1am and tells us they’ve seen a gang cruising the streets checking out cars, we’ll dispatch an officer.”

Unfortunately for Chris King, it’s unlikely to send one as far as south-west London, where he lives. The victim of converter thieves claims he was visited by officers from the Metropolitan Police only after he wrote complaining to his local MP, the mayor of London and Dame Cressida Dick, the force’s commissioner. Lack of evidence meant the crimes were not investigated.

A spokesman for the Met Police told Autocar that the force is aware of catalytic converter thefts in King’s area and that local neighbourhood teams have run operations such as plain-clothes patrols to prevent them, as well as helping local residents understand how to secure their car’s converter.

“Local teams continue to monitor local thefts and will continue to work proactively to stop them,” said the spokesman. Sadly, their efforts have come too late for King, who is now enjoying travelling by bus and feeling much more relaxed.

How to beat the cat thieves

Although little can defeat a gang of crooks with a hydraulic jack, a power saw and a determination to use violence if approached, the following may deter them:

If you have one, park your car in the garage or in such a way that it’s difficult to access (for example, parked tightly between other cars).

Fit a Thatcham-approved alarm with a tilt function that senses vehicle movement.

Fit a security device such as a Catloc or Catclamp.

Have your converter etched with a unique number and advertise the fact on the car’s window.

Although thieves will operate in daylight, try to park in a well-lit area that’s overlooked.