Owners of petrol cars are being warned that their vehicles are at high risk if parked on the street as catalytic converter thefts surged last year.
Thefts of the devices from the underside of cars rose six-fold in 2019 with 13,000 reported cases in England and Wales – up from 2,000 the year previous, according to an investigation by BBC Radio 5 Live.
It also revealed that an act introduced in 2013 to prevent dealers from accepting cash sales of scrap metal and requiring proof of identity on transactions has not been enforced by councils, giving criminals easy means of offloading valuable stolen catalytic converters.
All petrol cars at risk: A new BBC investigation found that there were 13,000 reported cases of catalytic converter thefts from cars in England and Wales in 2019 – up from 2,000 the year previous
The BBC report found that criminal gangs stealing catalytic converters are predominantly operating in the capital.
And in an added nasty twist, they are targeting vehicles owned by NHS staff, who are parking their cars for prolonged periods during their shifts.
The devices – which are fitted to all petrol cars manufactured from 1993 – are designed to substantially reduces the amount of harmful pollutants emitted from vehicle exhaust pipes by taking the gases produced and converting them into water vapour and less harmful gases via a series of chemical reactions.
However, in recent years they have become easy targets for criminals who can make big money out of breaking them down and selling the valuable materials they’re made from.
The exhaust devices contain rhodium, platinum and palladium, all of which have rocketed in value in recent years.
Prices of palladium have doubled over two years, while rhodium is four times higher – and both are currently more valuable than gold, according to a recent Money Mail investigation.
It found that a Troy ounce (1.1 ounce) of gold is worth $1,731 (£1,392), while palladium sells for $1,914 (£1,539).
Rhodium, which is sold in normal ounces, was priced at $8,300 (£6,675) an ounce in June.
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
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 petrol cars, others are taking a more ham-fisted approach and sawing them off the exhaust system, causing irreversible damage and resulting in some 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.
Last year, a video taken by a member of the public showed a gang holding up traffic on a busy London residential road in broad daylight to remove one of the devices from a parked Toyota Prius.
Just last week, a masked duo were caught on camera lifting up a parked silver Honda Jazz and cutting out the converter in a quiet street in Stoneygate, Leicester.
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 said last year that it 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.
Motoring association MotorEasy analysed 10,000 garage bills last year 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.
Last year, AA Insurance said it had seen 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.
Motorists caught by police driving a vehicle knowing the catalytic converter has been removed can even 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.
You can buy 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 – the BBC 5 Live investigation 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.
The BBC’s investigation found that palladium inside the devices was worth more per gram than gold last year, hence why gangs are targeting cars to steal them
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, told This is Money last year 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.’