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UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020
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Some items on your car, like hubcaps or stereos, you may expect to be targeted by thieves. You may not realize that one of the most stolen items on a vehicle is its catalytic converter. This emissions control device rests outside the car as part of its exhaust system, making it easy for thieves to reach. Fortunately, the theft is covered under most insurance plans if you have the appropriate coverages.
What is a Catalytic Converter?
The catalytic converter, also called a cat or cat-con, is part of the vehicle’s emission’s system. Car exhaust goes through the converter, where a chemical process converts toxic fumes into somewhat less toxic exhaust. Every gas-powered vehicle manufactured since 1975 is fitted with one.
Before conversion, exhaust includes the highly toxic carbon monoxide as well as hydrocarbon and oxides of nitrogen. Once the chemical processes are applied, these toxins are converted to the less dangerous carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water that makes up car exhaust.
It’s easy to tell that a vehicle’s catalytic converter has been stolen because the car will be extremely loud. The car’s owner may not notice at first glance, but once the car starts the exhaust system will roar loudly. The sound is similar to the noise of motorcycles and should be very obvious. Once the engine is shut off, the car’s owner can check underneath the car to ensure that the catalytic converter is definitely missing; it usually rests just behind the tailpipe.
Although you can still drive a car without a catalytic converter, it’s best to avoid doing so if possible. Not only is the car extremely loud, it also has toxic emissions that can pose a hazard to others near you in traffic. Cars without catalytic converters cannot pass a city’s emissions test, so you will not be able to renew its registration without repairing the vehicle. The thieves may also cause damage to the fuel lines or wiring that could make the car dangerous to operable. Although you’ll want to confirm this with your insurance company, it’s usually acceptable to consider your vehicle non-operable until the converter has been replaced.
Why Do Thieves Steal Catalytic Converters?
As with other types of theft, the purpose of stealing a catalytic converter is so that the thief can make a profit. When thieves steal radios or navigation devices, they usually sell the whole part as-is in a pawn shop or other location. This is not the case for stolen catalytic converters.
The chemical catalyst used in the converter often employs one or more precious metals such as gold, palladium, rhodium or platinum. Thieves can sell the converters whole to metal extractors, who can remove the small amounts of precious metals, combine them and re-sell them at a high profit. In the case of rhodium, for example, an ounce can sell for as much as $6,000.
Thieves can sell each stolen catalytic converter for between $20 to $200 per unit. Considering it takes only a few minutes to remove the fairly small part, a thief can easily work an entire parking lot and make a massive profit. As the value of precious metals continues to rise, catalytic converter theft will happen more often.
The most common targets for theft are pickups and SUVs because they are higher off the ground. It’s easier for thieves to get under the car and steal the part on these vehicles than on small cars, which might require jacks to raise them up before the converter becomes accessible.
How much does a New Catalytic Converter cost?
Although the part is fairly small, it can be very pricey to replace. The price will vary depending on the make and model of the vehicle, but a price of around $1,000 is fairly average. The cost may be higher due to labor costs, and it could cost substantially more if there’s additional damage to surrounding areas.
For older-model vehicles, it’s not uncommon for a stolen catalytic converter to produce a total loss despite the car being otherwise undamaged. When this happens, it’s the owner’s choice between accepting the total loss settlement and replacing the car, retaining the vehicle on a salvage policy and repairing it, or choosing not to repair the vehicle.
If you live in an area with no emissions requirements, you may wish to forgo repairs, but be aware that the exhaust will be substantially more toxic than regular exhaust.
Will Insurance Cover a Stolen Catalytic Converter?
Because the catalytic converter is part of the vehicle that’s permanently installed, its theft will be covered under the vehicle’s comprehensive coverage. The comprehensive deductible will apply, and the insurance company will inspect the vehicle to assess the full extent of the damages and offer settlement accordingly.
If a car does not have comprehensive coverage, the theft would not be covered. This means that cars with a liability-only policy cannot be covered for any type of theft or vandalism. In most cases, comprehensive insurance is very cheap to add to a policy; unless your vehicle is very old and not worth repairing, it’s a good idea to carry comprehensive coverage.
If you’re not sure what coverages you carry on your policy, you can check with your insurance agent. He or she will be able to explain your coverages and let you know what protection you have. This will help you decide whether it’s worth adding protection against theft, vandalism or other concerns.