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How to Keep Thieves From Stealing This $2,300 Car Part

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When you think about protecting your car from damage or theft, you probably run through a mental checklist of sorts. Doors locked? Check. Windows up? Yep. Catalytic converter secure? Um…

Most cars have catalytic converters as part of the exhaust system, but they’re notable for more than reducing emissions. Catalytic converters get their jobs done using precious metals like rhodium, platinum and palladium, and that’s what makes them vulnerable to theft. Thieves can scrap these metals for $20 to $240, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and catalytic-converter thefts have been pretty common over the last few years.

In 2015, consumers filed 3,986 insurance claims regarding stolen catalytic converters, up from 1,058 in 2009, according to the NICB. The figures come from the Insurance Services Office ClaimSearch data, which NICB used to identify patterns of catalytic converter thefts from 2008 to 2015. Much of the rise in theft has to do with the values of precious metals, which tanked in late 2008 and have since increased. (Keep in mind this only includes insured vehicles — there are likely more thefts that don’t result in an insurance claim.)

“There was a spike of catalytic converter thefts in 2008, but likely due to the metal prices in 2008-2009, the number of these claims took a downturn. Since then, there has been a steady climb in catalytic converter thefts which is likely attributed to the growing popularity and ease of stealing them,” says an NICB report from Aug. 28.

Thieves often target trucks and SUVs for their catalytic converters, because they sit higher above ground, so it’s easier for a thief to get under them and cut out the part. (Vehicles that sit lower to the ground aren’t necessarily safe — it’s just more time consuming if the thief needs to use a jack.) Between 2008 and 2015, catalytic-converter thefts were most common in Chicago (980 thefts); Sacramento, California (850); Los Angeles (550); Atlanta (407); and Indianapolis (353). On a state level, thefts were most common in California (8,072), Texas (1,705), Illinois (1,605), Ohio (1,439) and Georgia (1,215).

Most important: It’s expensive to repair. Depending on what kind of car insurance you have, you could be on the hook for the whole bill.

“Installing a replacement catalytic converter may cost between $500-$2,300 depending on the type,” the report says. “Repair costs are driven higher since thieves work fast and often damage other areas of the car attempting to remove catalytic converters as quickly as possible.”

Ideally, you can keep your car in a garage — a significant obstacle to thieves — but there are other ways to deter theft and avoid the headache of replacing a catalytic converter. Here are some recommendations from the NICB:

  • Claim ownership. Look into etching the license plate number or vehicle identification number onto the heat shield of the catalytic converter. There are government programs that do it for free, or you may be able to pay to have it done at a dealer or local body shop.
  • Park strategically. If you don’t have a garage, park near a building entrance or somewhere near surveillance cameras. A well-lit parking area may also deter theft.
  • Lock it down. Consider adding a security system to your car, having the catalytic converter welded to the frame of the vehicle or having a cage added to protect the part. Before you make any changes, make sure you find out how it may affect any warranties you have on the vehicle.

Otherwise, you might find yourself out of a catalytic converter — and $500 to $2,300.

Situations like the theft of a catalytic converter is a good example of why it’s so important to have an emergency fund: Such large, one-time expenses are difficult to absorb into your regular budget and put people at risk of getting into credit card debt. In addition to the out-of-pocket costs and credit consequences, it’s important to note that making insurance claims can cause your premiums to rise. And on the topic of credit and insurance: In some states, insurers consider your credit history when determining your premium, so protecting your credit can be just as important as keeping your car safe from theft. (You can keep tabs on your credit standing by getting a free credit report summary every 14 days on Credit.com.)

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