Catalytic converter theft: Removing auto exhaust device takes a minute, but replacing it could take months

When Ken Shay, a longtime Chicago resident, went out to start his 2013 Lexus RX 350 SUV parked near his Lincoln Park apartment on a recent weekday morning, he was in for a rude awakening.

His trusty ride was locked up and tucked in along the quiet residential street bordering the park, just as he left it the night before.

Then he turned the key.

“The instant you turn the engine on, it sounds like a jet airplane,” said Shay, 79.

Shay made a noisy beeline for his auto repair shop, the latest victim of a crime wave that has exploded during the pandemic: catalytic converter theft.

Part of the automotive exhaust system that filters emissions, the catalytic converter has become a target for mechanically inclined thieves across the U.S., who work like pit crews to jack up or slide under a vehicle, saw off the device and abscond with the goods in a matter of minutes.

The catalytic converter contains valuable precious metals including rhodium, palladium and platinum, which can fetch hundreds of dollars in resale on the black market. But the repair bills can run into the thousands of dollars for car owners, and with supply chain disruptions, the wait for replacement parts can take months. Most insurance policies don’t cover rental cars beyond 30 days.

Drivers will know they’ve been victimized when a once-sedate sedan suddenly roars like a cross between a lawn mower and a race car.

Last year, there were 52,206 catalytic converter thefts across the U.S., up 1,215% from 2019, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The trend has only accelerated this year.

California is the epicenter of catalytic converter thefts, accounting for 37% of reported incidents last year, followed by Texas, Washington, North Carolina and Minnesota. Illinois ranked 11th for catalytic converter thefts in 2021, according to the NICB.

“This is a really, really big problem right now in the city of Chicago,” said Juan Pinto, longtime general manager at Milito’s Auto Repair in Lincoln Park. “We’ve been installing so many catalytic converters. It’s out of control.”

The repair shop sees mostly Toyota, Honda and Hyundai models missing catalytic converters, with the Prius hybrid a top target, Pinto said. Many original equipment converters are on back order for months, so Milito’s replaces them with aftermarket devices whenever possible.

“The aftermarket is not the same as the original part,” Pinto said. “But the customer has no choice, because right now the original catalytic converters are super hard to get.”

A Carfax study published in June found Ford F-Series pickup trucks were the No. 1 target for catalytic converter thieves, followed by the Honda Accord. Other vehicles making the top-10 list included the Jeep Patriot, Ford Econoline, Chevy Silverado, Chevy Equinox, Honda CR-V, Toyota Camry, Chrysler 200 and Toyota Prius.

Thieves hit trucks and SUVs because they have higher ground clearance and are easier to get under, according to experts. Hybrids like the Prius are targeted because the catalytic converters contain a higher concentration of precious metals, making them more valuable for resale.

State Farm, the largest auto insurer in the U.S., has seen catalytic theft claims skyrocket across the board during the pandemic.

In 2019, State Farm paid $4.6 million for 2,535 catalytic converter theft claims nationally. Last year, State Farm paid $62.6 million for 32,265 claims, a 13-fold increase over two years. The pace is accelerating this year, with $50 million paid for 23,570 claims through the first six months, according to State Farm spokeswoman Heather Paul.

For most passenger cars, the replacement costs for catalytic converters range between $1,000 and $2,500 for parts and labor, Paul said.

The time frame for getting the work done has also grown during the pandemic, Paul said.

“As with many auto parts, there are ongoing supply chain issues,” Paul said. “As theft rises, the demand for catalytic converters increases. Unfortunately, this may result in a delay in getting your vehicle repaired.”

Adding to the pain, a rental car may prove costly.

At State Farm, the rental car reimbursement option would not cover the extended waiting period that some repair shops cited for converters from original equipment manufacturers, Paul said.

“Customers may need to pay out-of-pocket if there is a delay in getting parts for catalytic converter theft,” Paul said.

Chicago-area repair shops are seeing both a surge in catalytic converter theft repairs and a delay in getting replacement parts.

Ray Khouchaba, general manager of the Toyota on Western dealership on Chicago’s Southwest Side, said his service department is seeing roughly a car per day come in with a missing catalytic converter.

“It has more than doubled in the past year,” Khouchaba said.

He said the wait for an OEM catalytic converter is about three months, and the replacement cost is running about $3,000 for a Prius.

Okan Sengullu, 48, owner of Bucaro Brothers Auto Care in Lincoln Park, said the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Tucson crossover SUV have been the two hottest models for catalytic converter theft this summer at his shop.

About two to three vehicles a week are coming in, but with catalytic converters on back order, some of those cars end up sitting on his lot for months, he said. The use of aftermarket parts has helped speed up the process.

The Bob Loquercio Auto Group has more than a dozen retail locations in Illinois and Indiana, including Toyota, Honda and Hyundai stores. Catalytic converter theft service calls are spiking across the entire dealership group.

“Not a day goes by that we don’t have a call for two or three catalytic converters,” said Loquericio, 66.

The largest Toyota dealerships in his group, Elgin Toyota and Chicago Northside Toyota, are selling 10 converters each per month, he said. But the parts are back ordered for up to six months.

A recent catalytic converter replacement on a 2020 Prius at Northside Toyota cost nearly $3,200, Loquercio said.

In 2014, Loquercio’s Hyundai dealership in Elgin was hit when thieves removed catalytic converters from five new cars on the lot. Loquercio has since added overnight video surveillance at all of his dealerships, helping them nab more than a half-dozen thieves in the past year, he said.

Fleet thefts are also a growing problem. Signature Truck Center, a used commercial delivery truck dealership in Crystal Lake, reported thieves removed 28 catalytic converters from vehicles parked in the lot over the weekend.

The dealership, which was previously hit two years ago, estimates the current loss at $75,000 to $85,000, depending on replacement cost. It is offering a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the thieves.

“This is a big one,” said Dave Loucks, general manager at Signature Truck. “With supply chain issues, I can’t aftermarket source that many of them. If I have to get them from Ford or Chevy/GMC, then the price almost quadruples.”

Mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency since 1975, catalytic converters reduce air pollution by breaking down toxic gas emitted by combustion engines. The devices are located under a vehicle, between the engine and the muffler.

Thieves have targeted the emission control device over the past decade as the rising value of metals in the converter rivaled gold. They sharpened their craft to remove it so quickly that parked cars could be hit without anyone taking notice.

But the pandemic surge is beginning to raise awareness — and vigilance.

This year, 36 states including Illinois introduced legislation to curb catalytic converter theft. The Illinois law, passed in June, prohibits a recyclable metal dealer from purchasing a catalytic converter with a value over $100 using cash.

The NICB recommends drivers take their own anti-theft measures such as parking in a garage or installing motion-sensor security lights. Making the catalytic converter harder to remove or resell is also recommended.

In August, the Niles Police Department hosted an event at a tire store where drivers lined up to get their catalytic converters spray-painted as a deterrent to potential buyers.

Another solution gaining traction is the installation of locking devices that make catalytic converters less accessible to thieves looking to cut-and-run.

A Toledo company has built a booming aftermarket business with its CatClamp, a wire cable cage that attaches to the exhaust system. The device starts at $181 and runs north of $900 for heavy duty trucks, and can be installed by do-it-yourselfers or mechanics.

Kate Brueggemeier, general manager at CatClamp, said business is up 40-fold during the pandemic. The company has sold 50,000 units over the past 12 months. Pre-pandemic, annual sales were closer to 1,000 units, she said.

“First of all, it’s a visual deterrent. It’s one more thing that a thief has to hassle with,” Brueggemeier said. “Second of all, actually it is a physical deterrent. Many handheld battery-operated tools, the battery will die before they’ll get through the wire rope.”

Chicago and Los Angeles are the top two markets for the CatClamp, but sales have “diversified” into new regions over the past two years as catalytic converter thieves expand their reach, Brueggemeier said.

Ally Reiner, 30, who lives in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, has seen her 2016 Hyundai Tucson hit twice by catalytic converter thieves during the pandemic. The most recent removal was in May, when the crossover SUV was parked overnight in front of her apartment.

As a repeat victim, she knew what was happening when she turned the ignition key the next morning.

“The second you turn the car on, it sounds like you’re on a motorcycle,” she said. “It’s a loud, crazy, insane noise that you can tell right away something is wrong.”

Reiner, a teacher, called her school to say she wouldn’t be coming in and went back to bed.

She was resting up for the ordeal ahead.

“I knew I was in for a headache of a day, trying to get it figured out,” Reiner said.

Reiner took her car into Hyundai of Lincolnwood, Illinois. She wouldn’t see it again for 5 1/2 weeks, as her insurance company, USAA, and the dealership went “back and forth” over locating the replacement parts to use, she said. USAA offered her a rental car, but she opted instead to hitch rides with co-workers and rent a Divvy bike for the final few weeks of school.

The repair bill was $1,700 — Reiner paid $500 out of pocket after insurance — but when the shop offered to add a catalytic converter lock for $500, she declined.

Reiner also explored a garage, but couldn’t afford the $100 a month rent. Instead, she parks her car as close to her bedroom window as possible, keeping a watchful eye on the street below.

“There’s a lot of anxiety,” she said. “There’s also kind of a weird feeling of being so close to the car, and knowing a thief in the night has shown up. It’s really stressful.”

Shay is also a two-time catalytic converter theft victim, after a previous car was hit 10 years ago in a Chicago Target parking lot.

A wealth management adviser who splits his time between Chicago and Wisconsin, Shay said he didn’t see the utility in leasing a year-round indoor parking space at his high-rise, but he is reconsidering.

“We’ll have to look at that,” Shay said. “But this could happen at three in the afternoon when you’re at Walgreens.”