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Urban Autocare mechanic Charlie Whetstone inspects a Subaru Forester on June 16, 2021 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

While police departments across Colorado report an upswing in thefts of catalytic converters, Front Range vehicle experts warn that the cost of new anti-pollution devices has skyrocketed — just as new state clean-air regulations prohibit installing cheaper used devices.

The converter, which looks like a small muffler, is designed to turn environmentally hazardous carbon monoxide emitted by an engine into less harmful gasses. Under a state law that went into effect Jan. 1, all cars and trucks in Colorado must have a catalytic converter from the manufacturer, or a new aftermarket device that meets California’s Air Resource Board emissions standards.

Prior to the new law, mechanics could install used converters if they had been approved for resale by an EPA-authorized business, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“That’s what is making the cost go up quite a bit more,” said Justin Edmisson, who works at Front Range Muffler in Colorado Springs. 

A universal catalytic converter, which passed federal regulations, used to cost about $350, he said. Now, a single converter ranges between $1,000 and $2,000, though the overall replacement cost depends on the vehicle and how many converters the car requires. While some cars have one converter, others can have up to six.

In a move that takes less than a minute, thieves slide under cars and trucks and brazenly saw off the converters before selling them to recycling companies or scrap yards for a quick profit, according to Lafayette Police Deputy Chief Brian Rosipajla.

Catalytic converters are easy to steal and the demand for the precious metals used to manufacture them is high, Rosipajla said.

“We’ve had about 30 of them (stolen) since the beginning of the year… it is an incredible uptick since last year,” he said. 

Thieves often target cars in parking lots, such as grocery stores and hospitals, the deputy chief said. The motive appears to be valuable metals inside the converter, like rhodium, palladium and platinum, he added.

Denver police reported 257 catalytic converters stolen across the city in 2020 — up from 15 in 2019, according to a post on the department’s Facebook page. In January, DPD reported 108 thefts of the device.

The crime trend has hit Colorado Springs, too. Last week, officers arrested two men suspected of sawing off catalytic converters in the early hours of the morning, police reported. During a traffic stop, the officers found a converter in plain view, lying on the back seat of the suspect’s car.

A catalytic converter is seen on a Subaru Forester at Urban Autocare in Denver on June 16, 2021. Emission-reducing converters are made of rhodium, palladium and platinum, making them a valuable stolen good at hundreds of dollars per piece. Toyota Priuses and Honda Elements can be especially targeted due to their ease of access. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit that is tracking the surge in catalytic converter thefts across the nation, there has been a nearly tenfold increase in thefts since 2018. In 2020, more than 14,400 converters were reported stolen, NICB reported.

The organization blames the rise on the higher prices of the precious metals used to manufacture a catalytic converter. One metal, rhodium, has skyrocketed to $14,500 per ounce, though typically only a fraction of an ounce goes into the converter, the organization reported.

If stolen parts are recovered, Edmisson said, his shop is prohibited by law from reinstalling the used converters. Instead, he must install a brand-new converter, either aftermarket or from a dealer. 

Often, insurance can help cover the costs of converter theft, he noted. 

Edmisson said this year he’s seen more customers needing their catalytic converters replaced after being stolen than in any other period since the shop opened 21 years ago.

How to prevent catalytic converter theft

An increase in stolen catalytic converters has led Lafayette police, and other departments, to urge residents to take anti-theft measures, including:

  • Park in a garage or secured area when possible.
  • Etch the car’s VIN number or license plate number on the converter to help law enforcement identify a stolen converter.
  • Spray paint the converter bright colors to help officers identify a stolen device. Some agencies recommend “high-temperature  automotive exhaust spray paint.”
  • Upgrade your car alarm to activate when your car is jacked up on one side.
  • Install a skid plate or cover on the bottom of your car.
  • Consider installing a protective shield or cage over the catalytic converter to make theft difficult. Companies like Millercat, based in California, design and sell protective shields specifically for Priuses, ranging from $140 to $270, according to its website.

Drivers will notice their catalytic converter has been stolen because their car will be noisier when starting or when accelerating, Rosapajla said.

Certain cars have become targets for thieves because their catalytic converters are more easily accessible, such as trucks and SUVs that sit higher off the ground.

Honda Elements have become an attractive target for catalytic converter theft, possibly due to the relatively high amount of valuable metals inside its converters, according to Rosapajla.

Edmisson said he also has seen many owners of Toyota Priuses need stolen converters replaced. 

“If you’re in a public place or even in your neighborhood and you see someone crawling around underneath somebody’s vehicle, give law enforcement a call and we’ll check out the situation,” Rosapajla said, “because obviously that is going to look abnormal in the middle of a hospital or grocery store (parking lot).”

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer based in Colorado Springs for The Colorado Sun, covering breaking news, wildfires and all things interesting impacting Coloradans. Before joining The Sun, Olivia covered criminal justice for The Colorado Springs Gazette. She’s also...