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Times are tough nowadays for the car industry and consumers alike, what with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the global semiconductor chip shortage, dwindling car sales, and rising new and used car prices. To make matters worse, add the recent spike of catalytic converter thefts across the country. If you’ve never heard of catalytic converters, consider yourself lucky.

Catalytic converters are an important part of a car’s exhaust system. They’re designed to reduce harmful emissions of carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons in fossil-fuel-burning vehicles. And they can fetch big bucks on the scrap-metal market. The resale price varies by vehicle model, but a single catalytic converter can fetch between $100 and $500. A van or truck catalytic converter is worth even more – $500 to $1,500, according to the Montreal police service.

Why are they being stolen? Because of the precious metals, such as palladium, rhodium, platinum and gold, contained within the catalytic converters. In many cases, the value of certain precious metals has almost quadrupled over the past three years, creating more demand and providing an incentive for offenders to steal converters and sell them to either unsuspecting or unscrupulous metal recyclers for a quick profit.

For the victim, it’s a nightmare – vehicle replacement parts and repairs can cost thousands of dollars – not to mention the hassle of filing insurance claims, and being without wheels for several weeks or months.

Trust me, I speak from experience. I’m one of the unfortunate vehicle owners whose catalytic converter was stolen from my 2001 Honda Accord at an auto detailer’s shop near Toronto Pearson International Airport in Mississauga in November, 2018. Hondas, Toyotas, cube vans and trucks with elevated heights are big targets for thieves. They can remove converters fast – in less than two minutes. And the older the vehicle, the more precious metals are inside the catalytic converters.

Sadly, I wasn’t the only victim in Peel, a region of 1.5 million residents just west of Toronto that includes Brampton, Mississauga and Caledon. In 2018, there were 18 cases of catalytic converter thefts reported. In 2020, there were 106 cases. And this year, as of Sept. 28, 2021, the number has already hit 211 cases, an 11-fold increase in Peel region alone.

This disturbing spike in catalytic converter thefts isn’t only taking place in Ontario. In Montreal, there were 323 cases in 2018. Flash forward to 2020, and the number jumped to 2,219 – that’s a 587-per-cent increase since 2018. Calgary police report similar disturbing stats – in 2019, there were 205 cases. From August, 2020, to August, 2021, that number spiked to 1,280 cases – up nearly 525 per cent.

Similarly, in Vancouver, there were 28 thefts in 2018. In 2020, that figure rose to 204. With pandemic restrictions in place at the time, that number could have been higher. “2020 was an anomaly for thefts due to COVID-19 restrictions, as there were fewer cars parked outside and fewer out-of-town visitors,” according to Sergeant Steve Addison with the Vancouver Police Department. He expects the number of thefts to rise with pandemic restrictions lifting and more people returning to work.

Tom Finch, 61, the owner of Phoenix Patient Transfer in Lowbanks, Ont., a small community on Lake Erie, was shocked to discover that both of his company vehicles – Chevrolet Express 3500 vans that had been converted into non-emergency patient transportation ambulances – had been damaged this past summer. Both vehicles were parked outside in a secure area with video cameras, around the corner from a police station.

“They’re quick. We didn’t even see them go underneath,” Finch says. Finch didn’t bother filing an insurance claim. He says two different insurance claims were required; insurance wouldn’t cover it under one incident. “It wasn’t worth it to go through insurance – we ended up paying out of pocket,” Finch says. The grand total was a whopping $4,500 – for one vehicle. The other van had more damage and was more expensive to repair, so he retired it. There were no replacement parts available in Canada for the van he was repairing; Finch had to wait two weeks for the catalytic converter to be shipped from Los Angeles, which meant lost time and more headaches.

Not surprisingly, no one was caught in Finch’s case. This type of theft is difficult to prove because catalytic converters don’t have serial numbers and thieves must be caught in the act or formally identified by witnesses, with evidence such as photos or videos. Many police departments are now working with auto makers to have them put a serial number on catalytic converters in the future; some manufacturers might start doing so as soon as next year, according to the Montreal police. That’s a smart move, which may deter some thieves.

For now, the best thing to do is to have your vehicle’s serial number engraved on your catalytic converter by a specialist, police recommend. And whenever possible, park in a well-lit, secure area, or in your garage. Don’t make it easier for thieves to make a quick buck at your expense.

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