Chicago has a huge problem with the theft of catalytic converters.
The organized theft gangs that target catalytic converters operate in Chicago fearlessly. Day, night, noon, or midnight, the thieves — usually a lookout and a “cutter” who slides under the vehicle to cut away the converter — are armed and dangerous.
According to the auto data company CARFAX, there were about 153,000 catalytic converters swiped nationwide in 2022. The Chicago Sun-Times analysis, based on Chicago Police Department reports covering January 2019 through the middle of last month, shows the number of thefts shot up in the fall of 2021 and exploded last summer.
And the 17,806 reports cataloged by the police almost certainly undercounted the problem. Many people don’t even bother to report converters stolen. Replacements and repairs typically cost between $1,000 and $2,500. That comes to more than $17 million lost to catalytic converter thefts in Chicago since 2019. And the thieves can make as much as $1,500 per converter, depending on the make and model year of the car.
Why steal catalytic converters? They’re easy to steal and nearly impossible to prosecute, and they’re rich in precious metals such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium. A lookout and a cutter can carry out a heist in less than a minute and be on their way.
The core buyers in that federal case were shockingly well-organized, offering dynamic pricing based on how the metals were trading globally and giving cutter crews real-time info on vehicle models to target, authorities say. Toyota Priuses from 2004 to 2009 were especially desirable.
The stolen converters go through “decanning,” where the core buyers use special machinery to crush the structure inside converters to extract the powder containing the precious metals.
The powder is sold to metal refineries that pay based on the amount of precious metals.
The metals end up on the open market where legitimate businesses buy them for the production of chemicals and plastics as well as in medical and dental devices, cancer treatments and electronics.
These metals are as good as gold — sometimes even better.
Platinum recently has sold for about $1,037 an ounce, palladium $1,429 an ounce and rhodium $6,300 an ounce.
In recent years, platinum hit a peak of $1,289 an ounce in February 2021. Palladium — much of it mined in Russia — hit $3,307 in February 2022. Rhodium reached a whopping $29,800 an ounce in March 2021 — 17 times the price of gold.
Consumers pay the price for this. Car repairs can reach $5,000 for high-end vehicles or in cases where the entire exhaust system needs to be replaced and damaged electronics repaired, says Robert Passmore, vice president of the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
In a city like Chicago, thefts take place at any time and anywhere. One man was babysitting his sister’s car for the day and the thieves struck in broad daylight.
“I go to start her car, and it just sounds terrible,” he says. “It’s just like a diesel engine or something.” Thieves have been known to strike again after the car had been fixed.
It’s not just Chicago, of course. Los Angeles holds the dubious standard of seeing the most thefts of converters. But automakers are going to have to figure out a way to make it more difficult to steal the converters.
Or, we could just wait until EVs take over the market. Electric cars don’t need a catalytic converter.