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What's a Catalytic Converter and Why Do People Steal Them?

A catalytic converter is part of your car’s exhaust system that converts harmful engine-exhaust pollutants into something less harmful to the environment through a chemical reaction. Typically, most of the “bad” hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides in the exhaust are converted into “less bad” carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapor. Catalytic converters began showing up in many cars in the mid-1970s and quickly became almost universally used.

Although they come in different shapes and sizes, catalytic converters are usually about the size of a loaf of bread (sometimes a flattened loaf) and are positioned in the exhaust system between the engine and the muffler. The converter needs high heat to function, so it’s placed as close to the engine as possible. Sometimes more than one converter is used.

Why They’re Stolen

Money is the main reason catalytic converters are often stolen. They contain three metals that aid in the chemical reaction that makes exhaust pollutants less harmful: platinum, palladium and rhodium. The prices of these metals have risen dramatically during the early 21st century.

Priced by the ounce, platinum went from an average of about $530 per ounce in 2001 to about $1,100 in 2021 after it reached a high of $1,700 in 2011. Palladium went from an average price of $600 per ounce in 2001 to a high of nearly $2,400 in 2021.

But it’s rhodium that’s been the most volatile. After averaging roughly $1,600 per ounce in 2001, it jumped to an average of about $18,000 in 2021, with a high that year of nearly $26,000. By contrast, gold went from about $300 per ounce in 2001 to roughly $1,800 in 2021, a sixfold increase.

The rise in price of a converter’s three valuable metals results in a higher cost for the converter itself — and higher values for converters as scrap, as the metals can be recovered and sold.

As a result, junkyards are more actively collecting catalytic converters, and some companies have sprung up that will purchase converters sent to them. While the value of a given converter varies tremendously, some figures seen in ads from “mail-them-to-us” companies range from about $140 to a whopping $1,500. The increasing value has prompted thieves to steal catalytic converters, often cutting them out from under a car parked right on the street.

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