Why catalytic converters are stolen from cars
They contain precious metals and take only seconds to swipe, police say
Nancy Rojas, the owner of a small business in south Calgary, started a van that had been parked at the back of the office and heard a really loud noise. Then, she smelled gasoline.
"I said, 'Oh my god, what is going on?'" Rojas said.
The van's catalytic converter had been stolen, she soon discovered. And it would cost about $5,000 to replace.
The experience, Rojas said, was "terrible for a small company to have that type of expense."
"We had a … community Facebook page, and they've been complaining about many cars being in the same situation," she said.
"We have to be worried about what's going on in Calgary."
A growing problem
A catalytic converter is the device in a vehicle's exhaust system that converts toxic pollutants into less harmful gases before they are expelled.
And while converter theft is not a new problem, it is a growing one.
In Calgary, for example, police said converter thefts rose from 300 reported incidents in 2020 to 1,014 in just the first eight months of 2021.
Meanwhile, in Edmonton, there were 2,484 reported catalytic converter thefts between November 2020 and October 2021 — an increase from 1,697 over the same period the previous year.
So, why the jump?
Bryan Gast, who works for an insurance fraud prevention agency, says it's largely due to the climbing prices of the precious metals found inside them.
Converters contain small amounts of platinum, palladium and rhodium.
"That's why we're seeing such a rise [in thefts] over the last couple of years," said Gast, vice-president of investigative services for Équité Association.
Crime of opportunity
When Conor Power first began working as a foreman at Mint Automotive in Calgary, it was rare to do repairs on vehicles that were missing their catalytic converters due to theft, he said.
"And then, the past year or two years, they just keep coming," Power said.
The precious metals within catalytic converters are relatively easy to steal for a determined criminal, he says.
All they have to do is crawl under the car or, if it's too low, use a jack to raise it.
Then, a cordless electric saw can be used to cut the converter from the vehicle.
"If they've actually taken the converter from you … [the vehicle is] going to scream at you, and you're going to know something happened," Power said.
It's what Sgt. Nick Wilsher with the Calgary Police Service calls a "crime of opportunity" that often takes less than 30 seconds.
"They'll then take [the converter] to a third party, who is then able, through their various connections, to be able to transfer that to a legal recycler, who will then give them the cash for the actual converter itself," Wilsher said.
"The people stealing get very little from it. The person in the middle gets a lot."
The vehicle owner, meanwhile, can get stuck with a hefty bill. Power says repairs can cost upward of $500 — sometimes into the thousands.
For many people, it's an expense that can be debilitating.
"If you have this unforeseen $1,000, $2,000 bill … you know, you're going to feel the pain there," Power said.
'How we can combat it'
So, what can be done to decrease the likelihood of catalytic converter theft?
Police encourage drivers to park their cars in well-lit areas, and suggest that lower vehicles could deter thieves who might gravitate toward those that don't need to be jacked up.
But right now, Gast says there are not a lot of safeguards in place to prevent it.
"We're working with law enforcement, manufacturers, the insurance industry, just trying to find a solution as to how to deal with this ever-growing problem," he said.
Even if catalytic converters are recovered, it's difficult to identify what vehicles they were stolen from, Gast says.
"That's why we're really working with third parties labelling these catalytic converters, so that they're not as easily accessed," he said.
And even if it's unlikely to retrieve a stolen catalytic converter, Wilsher says people should report it to police in addition to their insurance company.
"We really do encourage people to just go online and put in that report," he said.
"Will it bring your catalytic converter back? No, but it will start to give us a better picture of what's happening and how we can combat it."
With files from David Mercer and Stephen David Cook