Why do people steal catalytic converters in Canada?

By Arthur Dubois | Published on 15 Aug 2023

Share with FacebookShare with FacebookShare with TwitterShare with TwitterShare with Twitter
Table of Contents

    Catalytic converters – those mysterious and essential parts of our vehicles that often go unnoticed until they’re gone. In recent years, the theft of catalytic converters has skyrocketed in Canada, leaving vehicle owners frustrated and bewildered. 

    Car insurance claims submitted to Allstate Insurance Company of Canada in 2022 show an alarming rise in these incidents. In fact, thefts of catalytic converters shot up by 60 percent over the previous year. This builds on the volume of claims which has risen by an incredible 1,710 percent since 2018.

    But what drives these thieves to target these seemingly insignificant components? In this article, we will delve into the reasons behind this alarming trend.

    Understanding the Role of Catalytic Converters

    Before we look into the motives behind catalytic converter theft, let’s explore the role these devices play in our vehicles. French mechanical engineer, Eugène Houdry, invented this device in 1950 to lessen air pollution caused by vehicles.

    Acting as the guardians of our atmosphere, catalytic converters transform harmful pollutants emitted by vehicle engines into more neutral gases. By reducing carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and more than 90 percent of hydrocarbons , catalytic converters contribute to cleaner air.

    However, their significance goes beyond just environmental protection. Catalytic converters also ensure that vehicles comply with emission standards set by regulatory bodies. Without these devices, vehicles would spew out higher levels of pollutants. In turn, that would lead to increased air pollution and adverse health effects for both humans and the ecosystem.

    The Function of Catalytic Converters in Vehicles

    Catalytic converters work their magic by using precious metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, as catalysts. These metals promote chemical reactions that convert harmful gases into less damaging ones, like carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapour. By doing so, they help eliminate or significantly reduce the emissions that contribute to smog and climate change.

    Inside a catalytic converter, you’ll find two main types of catalysts: reduction catalysts and oxidation catalysts. The reduction catalysts, typically made of platinum and rhodium, help convert nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and oxygen. On the other hand, the oxidation catalysts are usually made of platinum and palladium. They aid in converting carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons into carbon dioxide and water vapour.

    It’s fascinating to think about how these tiny devices can have such a significant impact on the environment. Catalytic converters act as silent heroes, tirelessly working to keep our air clean and our planet healthy.

    The Composition and Value of Catalytic Converters

    However, these precious metals in catalytic converters make them attractive to thieves. Platinum, palladium and rhodium are all highly sought-after and valuable metals in the global market. Due to this demand, catalytic converters have become prime targets for those looking to profit from their illicit trade. These components contain a significant amount of these metals:

    • 3 to 7 grams of platinum
    • 2 to 7 grams of palladium
    • 1 to 2 grams rhodium

    These amounts create a golden opportunity for thieves who can quickly sell the stolen converters for a handsome sum.

    Interestingly, the value of catalytic converters can vary depending on the type of vehicle and the specific metals used. For example, larger vehicles, like trucks and SUVs, often have more valuable converters due to their higher precious metal content. Additionally, the price of precious metals in the market can fluctuate, further influencing the value of these components.

    To buy new, expect to pay $140 to $930 with Canadian Tire‘s best sellers ranging from $230 to $380. However, you can also buy used ones from scrap yards at a discount. For example, to replace a Volkswagen’s catalytic converter could cost $3,000 new or $500 used.

    Notably, the theft of catalytic converters not only poses financial losses for vehicle owners but also contributes to environmental damage. When a converter gets stolen, the vehicle emits pollutants at higher levels, negating the positive impact these devices have on air quality.

    In response to the rise in catalytic converter theft, authorities and manufacturers have explored various solutions. Some manufacturers changed design to make the converters less accessible, while others developed technologies to track stolen converters. Law enforcement agencies also crack down on converter theft rings and work to raise awareness about this issue.

    The Rise of Catalytic Converter Theft in Canada

    So, why has catalytic converter theft become such a rampant problem in Canada? Recent statistics paint a troubling picture, indicating a significant increase in incidents across the country. Two key reasons stand out: the lucrative market for stolen catalytic converters and the relative ease of stealing them.

    Catalytic converters’ valuable metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, can fetch a high price on the black market. As the prices of these metals continually rise, so does the incentive for thieves to strip vehicles of their converters.

    Furthermore, the relative ease of stealing catalytic converters has made them an attractive target for criminals. For instance, other car parts that require specialized tools or knowledge to remove. Yet, thieves easily access  catalytic converters and remove them with basic tools. This accessibility, coupled with the quick turnaround time for thieves selling the stolen converters, contributes to the surge in thefts.

    Recent Statistics on Catalytic Converter Thefts

    In recent years, the number of reported catalytic converter thefts has seen a shocking surge. Law enforcement agencies and insurance companies have documented an alarming increase in these incidents across numerous Canadian provinces. From British Columbia to Ontario, no region seems immune to this growing criminal trend.

    According to the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, the number of these claims grew 10-fold between 2016 and 2021. The CBC also reported several incidents or large seizures in Ontario and New Brunswick. This staggering statistic highlights the urgent need for increased awareness and preventative measures to combat this rising problem. The majority of these thefts occur in densely populated urban areas, where criminals easily access vehicles in parking lots.

    Hotspots for Catalytic Converter Theft in Canada

    Certain areas have become notorious hotspots for catalytic converter theft. For instance, cities like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal have witnessed a significant uptick in these thefts.

    In Vancouver, for example, the rise in catalytic converter thefts has prompted local law enforcement agencies to launch targeted operations. Police have increased patrols in high-risk areas, conducted undercover operations to catch thieves in the act. Also, they have collaborated with scrap metal dealers to identify and apprehend individuals selling stolen converters.

    Similarly, in Toronto, the police have established a dedicated task force to combat catalytic converter thefts. This specialized unit works closely with other law enforcement agencies, insurance companies and automotive industry experts. In April 2023, Project Stallion investigated thefts of 300 catalytic converters in the two areas of the city in the previous year. They also provide educational resources to vehicle owners, highlighting the risks and offering tips to protect their catalytic converters.

    Montreal, too, has seen a surge in catalytic converter thefts, prompting local authorities to take action. The city’s scrap metal dealers must maintain detailed records of transactions and verify sellers’ identities. Additionally, law enforcement agencies have increased surveillance in areas prone to thefts. Finally, they have established a registry so residents can more easily reunite with their catalytic converters after a theft.

    As catalytic converter theft continues to be a growing concern in Canada, vehicle owners must remain vigilant to protect their vehicles. From installing anti-theft devices to parking in well-lit and secure areas, every effort counts.

    Why Thieves Target Catalytic Converters

    What drives criminals to devote their time and energy to stealing catalytic converters? Two reasons inspire this criminal behavior: the lucrative market for stolen converters and how easily thieves can steal them undetected.

    The Lucrative Market for Stolen Catalytic Converters

    The precious metals found within catalytic converters can fetch a high price on the black market. Their platinum, palladium and rhodium are in high demand in various industries, including automotive, electronics, and jewelry. The scarcity of these metals drives up their value, making them an attractive target for thieves.

    With demand constantly on the rise, thieves can cash in on their stolen loot quickly and with relative ease. They can earn $200 to $300 per stolen catalytic converter, tempting those desperate for quick money. The black market for these stolen auto parts operates discreetly, providing a safe haven to sell loot without detection.

    According to Manitoba Public Insurance, thieves targeted these vehicles most often in 2021:

    ModelNumber of thefts
    Honda CR-V201
    Hyundai Tucson198
    Hyundai Santa Fe129
    Kia Sportage94
    Honda Element54
    Ford E45052
    Ford F150 Truck45
    Toyota Prius40
    Ford E350 Van33
    Honda Pilot32

    The Ease of Stealing Catalytic Converters

    Certainly, the relative simplicity of the act itself drives up theft rates. Unlike breaking into a vehicle or robbing a house, stealing a catalytic converter requires minimal effort and tools. Thieves can swiftly and silently remove these devices from parked vehicles, leaving their unsuspecting owners astonished and frustrated.

    Most converters are located underneath the car, exposed and vulnerable. This accessibility allows thieves to approach the vehicle discreetly, often under the cover of darkness. The process can be completed within minutes, leaving little time for anyone to notice or intervene. Since it happens quickly, thieves can collect several in one night.

    Furthermore, the lack of unique identification marks makes it difficult to trace stolen ones back to their original owners. Unlike other car parts with serial numbers or specific markings, one converter looks like another. This anonymity makes it easier for thieves to sell the stolen converters without arousing suspicion.

    The widespread availability of online tutorials and instructional videos adds to the ease of stealing catalytic converters. These resources provide step-by-step guidance on how to remove and extract the valuable metals from the converters. As a result, even individuals with limited mechanical knowledge can attempt these thefts, further fueling the rise in converter-related crimes.

    How Car Insurers Deal With Catalytic Converters Theft in Canada

    Insurance companies have a stake in preventing any vehicle damage, since it lowers the amount of claims they process. For instance, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia paid out $906,105 to replace catalytic converters in 2019. That doubled its 2018 payouts $472,404.

    As a result, the insurance industry has worked more closely with police to target theft rings. Most companies have also provided advice to their clients in their blogs and newsletters to try to ward off even more thefts of this nature.

    Filing a car insurance claim for a stolen catalytic converter

    If your catalytic converter gets stolen, you will notice your vehicle runs much louder than normal. It will also not accelerate as well and will produce a foul odor from the unfiltered exhaust. When you look under the car, you’ll see a hole in the pipe near the muffler. Next, call a tow truck or take your vehicle to a mechanic immediately to make it safe and legal again.

    If you have comprehensive car insurance, then you’re typically covered against catalytic converter theft. This type of coverage will also pay to repair any related damage.

    Beforehand, check your policy  to confirm what is included. If you only have liability insurance, you will have to pay out of pocket for replacement and repairs. After all, liability coverage pays for other people’s property damage and injuries after a collision. Some people forego comprehensive insurance due to the higher cost, but it covers expensive repairs like this one.

    You may feel tempted to pay for the repair yourself. However, the price to buy and install a part is likely worth using your insurance. That way, you’ll get the job done while only paying your deductible, which would likely cost less than a new converter. 

    Preventive Measures and Solutions

    Thankfully, vehicle owners can take measures to reduce the chances of falling victim to this crime.

    How to Protect Your Vehicle from Catalytic Converter Theft

    Most effectively, install a protective shield around the converter. These shields make it more challenging for thieves to access and remove the converter, ultimately discouraging their attempts. 

    Additionally, parking in well-lit areas or secure garages can decrease the likelihood of becoming a target. Back into parking spaces so your exhaust pipe ends up closest to the wall. That makes it harder for a thief to reach and steal it.

    Further, if you have a car alarm, set it to react to vibrations as well as loud noises. Also, consider having a specialist engrave your VIN onto your catalytic converter. This may deter thieves when hawking it and help identify you as the owner of the car part.

    Law enforcement agencies and policymakers are also stepping up their efforts to address catalytic converter theft. Legislation is being introduced to regulate the buying and selling of catalytic converters. This would make it more challenging for criminals to profit from their stolen goods. Additionally, law enforcement agencies collaborate with vehicle manufacturers and the public to educate individuals about this growing problem.

    By addressing the root causes, implementing preventive measures and raising awareness, we can work towards a future where the air we breathe remains clean. At the same time, our vehicles can roam the streets with their precious catalytic converters intact.

    FAQs About Catalytic Converters Thefts in Canada

    What is a catalytic converter? 

    A catalytic converter is an essential component found in the exhaust system of nearly all modern vehicles. Its primary purpose is to reduce harmful emissions produced during the combustion process in an engine. The converter achieves this by using precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium as catalysts. When exhaust gases pass over these metals, pollutants such as carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides are converted into carbon dioxide, water vapour and nitrogen, thus making vehicle emissions more environmentally friendly.

    How much is a catalytic converter worth in Canada? 

    A new catalytic converter costs $140 to $930 with Canadian Tire‘s best sellers ranging from $230 to $380. However, high-end cars tend to have more expensive parts. For instance, a new Volkswagen’s catalytic converter could cost $3,000. You can also buy them for $100 to $300 from a scrapyard, depending on the model.

    Where is the catalytic converter located on my car? 

    You’ll find the catalytic converter within the exhaust system of your vehicle between the engine and the muffler. For most vehicles, especially those with a front-engine layout, the converter sits underneath the car, roughly beneath the passenger compartment. Depending on the specific design and model of your vehicle, there might be more than one catalytic converter. It’s often encased in a metal shell and connected to the exhaust pipes. If you intend to inspect or locate it, ensure the vehicle is cool to avoid burns, as the exhaust system gets extremely hot when the car is running.

    Can you drive without a catalytic converter? 

    Yes, technically, a vehicle can operate without a catalytic converter. However, driving without one has been illegal in Canada since 1975 due to emission control regulations. The catalytic converter reduces harmful emissions from a vehicle’s exhaust. Without it, a vehicle will release significantly higher amounts of toxic pollutants into the atmosphere, contributing to air pollution and health issues. Furthermore, removing or driving without a catalytic converter might affect the vehicle’s performance, fuel efficiency and noise levels.

    What metal is in a catalytic converter? 

    Catalytic converters contain several precious metals that act as catalysts to convert harmful exhaust gases into neutral substances. The primary metals found in most catalytic converters are platinum, palladium and rhodium. They can also contain gold. These metals effectively promote chemical reactions that break down harmful compounds in the exhaust. Due to the value of these metals, catalytic converters get targeted by opportunistic thieves.

    What does a catalytic converter look like? 

    A catalytic converter typically looks like a small metal box or oval-shaped canister that is part of the exhaust system. On the outside, it’s often made of stainless steel and might appear similar to a muffler. It has inlet and outlet pipes for the exhaust gases to flow through. Inside the metal casing, it has a honeycomb-like structure, which provides a large surface area for the exhaust gases to come into contact with the precious metals. This structure is often made of ceramic coated with the catalyst materials. Depending on the vehicle’s make and model, the converter’s size and shape can vary, but its basic appearance as a metal canister in the exhaust system remains consistent.

    Who buys stolen catalytic converters in Canada? 

    Some unscrupulous scrap metal dealers or recycling centers might knowingly or unknowingly purchase stolen catalytic converters. Additionally, there might be black-market buyers operating covertly. In Canada, the penalty for possessing stolen goods ranges up to 10 years if you have more than $5,000 of stolen items. The jail term could go up to 14 years if you try to sell stolen catalytic converters to others. When buying catalytic converters, make sure they come from legitimate sources.

    How long does a catalytic converter last? 

    Catalytic converters are generally designed to last for the lifetime of most vehicles. On average, vehicles can last between 160,000 to 300,000 kilometres if properly maintained. This can vary based on the brand, usage and regular maintenance. Within this context, a quality catalytic converter should last for at least 200,000 kilometres, if not more. However, its lifespan can be shortened if exposed to contaminants or if the engine has issues like burning oil or antifreeze, which can harm the catalyst.

    Do diesel cars have catalytic converters? 

    Yes, many modern diesel vehicles are equipped with catalytic converters specifically designed for diesel engines. These are often referred to as Diesel Oxidation Catalysts (DOCs). Primarily, a DOC reduces emissions, particularly carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. In addition to the DOC, many diesel vehicles also have a Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) to capture and burn off soot particles. Some diesel vehicles even employ a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) system, which uses a urea solution (commonly known as AdBlue or DEF) to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. All these systems together help modern diesel engines meet stringent emission standards.

    Share with FacebookShare with FacebookShare with TwitterShare with TwitterShare with Twitter
    Arthur Dubois is a personal finance writer at Hardbacon. Since relocating to Canada, he has successfully built his credit score from scratch and begun investing in the stock market. In addition to his work at Hardbacon, Arthur has contributed to Metro newspaper and several other publications