The AA has described the rise in catalytic converter thefts from vehicles as an ‘explosion’ after reporting that its patrols attended almost 4,000 cases last year where emissions devices had been ripped from the underside of cars.
The vehicle recovery service said it was called to just 57 instances of broken down motors found to have had their catalytic converters stolen in 2017.
That figure rose to 3,910 in 2020 – a leap of 6,760 per cent over just four years.
The motoring group said it is now working with police and vehicle manufacturers to combat the crime wave, which has turned into a lucrative swindle for organised thieves, especially in the capital.
Catalytic converter crime wave ‘explosion’: The AA says it has seen was called out to almost 4,000 cases where the emissions controlling device had been stolen from the underside of cars, which is a 6,780% jump in instances compared to 2017
The number of breakdowns attended by the AA due to catalytic converter thefts has been increasing in recent years, rising from fewer than 60 in 2017 to nearly 600 in 2018 and over 3,000 in 2019, the motoring group said.
And although cases plummeted during the first lockdown, they soon rallied, reaching nearly 4,000 in 2020.
More than half of incidents occur within Greater London, though the problem is now spreading outside of the capital.
In February, two thieves was caught on CCTV stealing a parked car’s catalytic converter in Cardiff in less than two minutes.
The car targeted was a 2006 Toyota Prius, which is one of the models criminals are targeting because of the better quality catalytic converters (find out which other cars are being targeted below).
Another alarming CCTV clip captured in Bury, Greater Manchester, showed a woman being dragged along by thieves after she confronted them when they were attempting to steal the exhaust component from her Honda Civic.
Another victim in March 7 captured on CCTV footage of thieves stealing the catalytic converter from their Toyota Auris hybrid parked on their driveway in Hurley, North Warwickshire.
AA Patrol leader Iain Gillespie said his team of 27 technicians receive three or four reports per week of damage caused by catalytic converter thefts – a scale of cases he has never witnessed before.
Iain said: ‘Thieves are targeting cars in workplace car parks which they know will be there all day, so they’re striking during daylight or at night at people’s home address.
‘It will normally come through as a ‘noise from under vehicle’. The patrol will call the member and say that they’re on the way but suspect the cat has been taken, at which point the customer often checks under the car and sees wires hanging down.
‘Watching people fall apart in front of you is horrible. It’s not what a patrol is used to as normally with a breakdown, somebody hasn’t been the target of a crime.
‘It also leaves people with anxiety about where to park; if it was taken in a place they normally park, such as at home or work, they have little choice but to continue parking there.’
The resulting damage can cost thousands of pounds to repair, and lead times for replacement parts can be up to two months.
It is usually possible to claim for the damage on insurance, but in some cases the vehicle may be a write-off.
‘The AA is determined to help stop this crime explosion and is working with police and manufacturers to help get more cars water marked so that cat cops can target rogue dealers and organised gangs and prove that the cats were stolen,’ says AA president, Edmund King.
‘The motor industry is helping by offering replacement cats and cages at cost price and helping the national roll-out of smartwater marking of cats.’
‘The catalytic converter was stolen from my 14-year-old car’
Becky John, a fashion stylist from North London, has had to claim on her motor insurance to repair damage to her 14-year-old car – and dip into her own pocket to fit a contraption that prevents repeat thefts
Becky John, 57, a fashion stylist from North London explained that her catalytic converter was recently stolen by thieves, despite her car being 14 years old.
She is now having to fork out more money to buy a contraption that should deter thieves, who have been found to target the same vehicles repeatedly if they think it is parked somewhere that’s exposed.
‘My catalytic converter was stolen at the beginning of the month by a horrible gang of thugs,’ Becky said.
‘My car is in the garage now waiting for a new one – luckily my insurance company have been brilliant covering the cost which is great because my car is 14 years old!
‘I obviously reported the whole incident to the police.
‘Catalytic Converter crimes are rife here, most evenings someone gets ‘done’.
‘The police said that it’s very common for the thieves to strike again once the car is back on the road with a spanking new catalytic converter.
‘I am now looking for a catalytic converter cage or plate that I can install to stop this rather horrible crime happening to me again, as I doubt whether my insurance company will pay up twice!’
Damage to Becky’s car can be seen here, with the catalytic converter ripped off the exhaust system
Beware hybrid owners, as your cars are being targeted
According to a number of reports from insurers, thieves have models that they have earmarked for having the best-quality catalytic converters.
All are hybrid cars, which are ripe for thieves as the emissions devices attached to their exhausts contain a higher concentration of precious metals and are generally less corroded.
Admiral says data shows the most susceptible hybrid models are the Honda Jazz, Toyota Prius, Toyota Auris and Lexus RX.
And it is older models that are most desirable to thieves. That’s because these hybrid cars are unlikely to have the latest in anti-theft devices installed and the catalytic converters attached to them have a higher proportion of the precious metals they want.
Vehicle manufacturers in recent years have reduced the volume of these metals in the devices in a bid to preserve the precious stocks and also make catalytic converters less attractive to thieves.
Hybrid cars are ripe for thieves as the catalytic converters contain a higher concentration of precious metals and are generally less corroded. It’s no surprise then that the Toyota Prius – the most-bought hybrid in the UK – is among the list of cars criminals are preying on
Honda’s hybrid version of the Jazz is also on the shopping list of these organised criminals. The Jazz is popular among older drivers and therefore tend to have accumulated fewer miles, meaning their catalytic converters will be in good condition
The Toyota Auris hybrid (left) – the sister car to the Prius – has also been identified by Admiral as a prime target. The Lexus RX hybrid SUV (right) is another model that’s often preyed on by thieves of catalytic converters
Why are catalytic converters so valuable?
Catalytic converters – which are fitted to all petrol cars manufactured from 1993 – are there to reduce the level of harmful pollutants from being emitted from a vehicle’s exhaust pipes.
The devices do this by taking the gases produced and converting them into water vapour and less harmful emissions via a series of chemical reactions.
They are made up of an array of valuable materials including palladium, rhodium and platinum – and criminal gangs are well aware of this small fortune stored beneath your vehicle.
Rhodium has seen its price soar in recent years and is far more valuable per ounce than gold.
The hugely volatile Rhodium price has risen 1,300 per cent over the past three years to stand at $ 29,200 per ounce, which compares to the current gold price of $1,787 – up 35 per cent in three years.
Palladium’s price has risen 177 per cent over the past three years to $2,846, while platinum’s is up 31 per cent over the same period to $1,209.
With gangs likely to have regular buyers for the metals lined-up, it has simply become a case of sawing the devices off cars as quickly as possible to escape undetected.
Edmund King explained: ‘Modern cat burglars stealing and selling cats for cash are part of a criminal chain.
‘They [catalytic converters] are then sold illegally; the precious metal is stacked into containers and shipped across the world to be refined, sometimes ending up back in your new state-of-the art car.
‘Thankfully the chain stops there as the new models have less precious metals and are designed to prevent theft.’
Handout photo issued by the Metropolitan Police of a number of stolen catalytic converters recovered by officers after more than 300 officers took part in an early morning operation on Tuesday 23 March to smash what is believed to be a criminal network fueling an increase in the thefts of catalytic converters across London
Last month, Metropolitan Police confirmed that 300 officers had simultaneously hit eight premises it believed were linked to the spate of catalytic converter thefts in London and Essex.
Two men were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit theft of catalytic converters. Another man was arrested on suspicion of committing over 25 thefts of catalytic converters.
Police recovered eighteen catalytic converters across the sites and a selection of tools that are used in catalytic converter thefts, including an angle grinder, car jack and reciprocal saw.
Detective chief inspector James Stanyer, Met’s lead officer for motor vehicle crime, said: ‘The criminals involved in stealing catalytic converters often commit their offences in full view of the owners of the vehicle and other members of the public, leaving them shocked and terrorised.
‘Today’s operation is the culmination of a year-long investigation led by police officers from the Met’s Neighbourhood Policing teams, working with the British Transport Police, Kent and Essex Police, and the Government Agency Intelligence Network.
‘The intelligence gathered during this investigation will ultimately lead to more proactive work to prevent this crime and bring those involved in it to face the consequences of their actions.’
Police tips to keep your car safe from catalytic converter thieves
– If possible, park in a locked garage or in a well-lit, densely populated area
– If you don’t have access to a garage, park close to fences, walls or kerbs with the exhaust being closest to the barrier; this will make the theft more difficult
– Avoid mounting your car on the kerb to park as it gives thieves easy access
– If your catalytic converter’s bolted on ask your local garage to weld the bolts to make it more difficult to remove
– Consider a ‘cage clamp’ which locks around the converter
– Speak to your car dealership about a tilt sensor that activates the alarm if someone tries to jack up your vehicle
– If you see someone acting suspiciously under a vehicle, report it to the police
Organised criminals are scouring the streets for vehicles that are easy targets, carrying car jacks and tools to quickly remove the exhaust devices in another vehicle so they can make a quick getaway
Ham-fisted thieves are writing motors off
Organised gangs are scouring areas equipped with jacks to lift vehicles off the ground to allow for easy access to the valuable devices.
While more skilled thieves are unscrewing them from the underside of cars, others are taking a more ham-fisted approach and sawing them off the exhaust system, causing irreversible damage and resulting in some owners having to replace entire exhaust systems.
And because there is often no third party to claim against, drivers using their polices to cover repair costs are also losing their No Claims Discount, unless otherwise protected.
What are catalytic converters and why are they so valuable to thieves?
Modern cars are fitted with catalytic converters to reduce harmful emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere.
They contain a ceramic honeycombed core coated with metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium.
The metals act as catalysts and convert the harmful gases into water vapour and less harmful emissions.
Criminals are ripping out the anti-pollution devices from cars and vans because they contain increasingly precious and sought-after metals such as platinum and palladium – leaving motorists with huge repair bills.
Soaring scrap metal prices have seen thefts increase ten fold in some areas.
The police and AA say that to help foil the thieves, catalytic converters can be uniquely marked in acid with a serial number.
Motorists are advised to keep their cars in garages or park in well-lit areas. Most converters are bolted on – but they can also be welded.
Some of those who have had the device stolen can face long waits to obtain a new one and get their car back on the road, thanks to the increase in thefts and fast-developing supply issues with parts.
This means they are unable to use their cars until a replacement part is fitted, else face fines.
Toyota has previously said it had not envisaged the ‘rapid rise’ in thefts, which in turn ‘impacted our ability to source enough of the parts we need in some cases’.
In some instances it has resulted in vehicles being written off entirely due to the level of damage caused by thieves ripping the devices from the underside of cars.
This is mainly due to the cars being targeted being older, meaning a high repair bill to fix the damage caused may exceed the vehicle’s value and is therefore deemed ‘uneconomical’ to fix by an insurer.
Motoring association MotorEasy analysed 10,000 garage bills for This is Money and found the average cost to replace a catalytic converter is up to £1,300, with over £900 of the cost being parts.
However, the AA says claims have amounted to anything between £2,000 and £3,000 when the devices have been sawed away from the exhaust.
Previous research by AA Insurance identified a marked increase in claims made by motorists who had catalytic converters pinched from their parked cars – some having had them stolen twice from the same motor.
Innocent drivers who fall victim to this crime also face punishment if they are caught driving their cars without a cat.
Motorists caught by police driving a vehicle knowing the catalytic converter has been removed can be fined up to £1,000 because the car will be producing higher levels of pollution than they are allowed to.
However, the additional sound the exhaust makes when a catalytic converter has been removed and not replaced will be so loud that motorists will be well aware there’s something amiss.
While the vehicle will still be driveable, removal of the device will trigger a warning light on the dashboard, reduce fuel economy and cause plenty of headaches from extra exhaust roar.
The catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system. Criminals in a hurry are sawing them off, causing irreversible damage that can result in repair bills of up to £3,000
What’s being done to tackle catalytic converter thefts?
The Scrap Metal Dealers Act introduced in 2013 was designed to make life more difficult for thieves to sell stolen metal parts to dealers by banning cash sales and demanding firms to conduct identity checks on sellers.
Devices to secure your catalytic converter
Concerned drivers can can purchase devices that lock in around the converter to make it more difficult to remove.
Providers include Catloc and Catclamp, which can be installed on a number of different vehicles.
However, they’re not cheap, with prices as high as £250 for some models.
But while councils are responsible to carry out inspections of licensed dealers – and close those found to be buying parts that have clearly been pinched – a BBC 5 Live investigation last year said enforcement levels are almost non existent.
The report found that of 240 licencing councils in England contacted, almost 120 had not visited any scrap dealers in the previous 28 months and many of the others had only inspected once or twice.
However, a small number had taken action against identified rogue dealers with support form the police.
The BBC report explained: ‘Part of the problem is that thousands of scrap dealers simply chose to drop out of the licensing scheme when the Scrap Metal Dealers Act came into force.
‘Many of those, says the industry, are now those dealers that advertise on the internet and buy catalytic converters with no questions asked.’
Nesil Caliskan from the Local Government Association, blamed councils ‘limited resources’ and ‘limited powers’ to tackle unlicensed operators, calling on the government to allow them greater enforcement to tackle the issue.
Police forces have also recognised the spike in catalytic converter thefts, with Kent Police receive a significant year-on-year increase in the number of the emissions devices being stolen, with 214 taken in the first 10 months of 2019 compared to 51 cases in all of 2018.
Palladium – which can be extracted from inside the devices – has risen 177% in value over the past three years to $2,846
The Scrap Metal Dealers Act was introduced in 2013 to force scrap-metal businesses to better vet sellers and not accept cash sales. However, abuse of the system means thieves still have an easy means of benefiting from the sale of valuable catalytic converters
Assistant chief constable Jenny Sims, who is the car crime lead for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, told 5 Live that the police is committed to tackling the thefts and the organised gangs behind them with ‘intelligence-led operations’, which they are undertaking at both ‘regional and national level’.
Mike Hawes, chief executive at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, previously told This is Money that catalytic converter theft is ‘of concern both to car owners and manufacturers’.
‘Car makers are taking what steps they can to make the crime as difficult as possible – some even modifying car designs to try to tackle the issue,’ he explained.
‘The industry is providing support and guidance to customers where required, and liaising with police forces to see what more can be done to apprehend the criminals and prevent further thefts.
‘In the meantime, police advice to consumers is that they should, where possible, park inside a locked garage, in well-lit areas and close to fences or walls to restrict access beneath the vehicle.’
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