When Neil Taylor* turned on the engine in his Toyota Prius in a Morrisons car park in October, his heart sank. The noise coming out of the vehicle was terrible, but Taylor knew precisely why.
His catalytic converter had been stolen – and not for the first time. Just three months earlier, the previous catalytic converter had been stolen while his Prius was parked on the driveway at the family home in south-east London. Now his insurance is up for renewal, and his company, Direct Line, has told him it will not offer cover again.
An epidemic of catalytic converter theft, largely from hybrid petrol/electric cars, is now becoming a major insurance headache for their owners. Once a car owner declares they have been rejected by an insurer, finding cover elsewhere is difficult. When Guardian Money obtained insurance quotes on Taylor’s car – a 14-year-old vehicle with no previous claims – once the thefts were disclosed, the premium jumped to more than £2,200. Taylor is now wondering whether he should just write off a perfectly functioning and environmentally responsible car.
Every big insurance company told Guardian Money that claims have soared. LV= said: “Between 2018 and 2019, we’ve seen more than a 600% increase in the number of claims relating to catalytic converters, with the average cost being about £1,000.”
Admiral said: “Year on year we have seen a fourfold increase in catalytic converter thefts, the majority of which have been from hybrid vehicles.”
The thieves can steal the converters from under a car in a matter of minutes – and often return once a new one has been fitted. Aviva said: “We recently replaced a catalytic converter for a London-based customer after it was stolen, only for it to be stolen again just six hours after the customer had their car back from the garage.”
Behind the theft epidemic is the soaring value of the metals used in catalytic converters, rhodium and palladium, with gangs stripping the parts and selling them overseas. In 2008, palladium sold for about $180 (£135) per ounce, but this week it was trading at $2,350, with a $300 increase in the past month alone.
Last week the price of rhodium jumped above $10,000 per ounce, about six times the price of gold. This time last year it was about $2,500. Some owners of older hybrids have been told that the metal stripped from their catalytic converter is worth more than the car itself. Older hybrids are targeted as they contain more of the precious metal than newer models.
The thieves make about £300 to £500 from every converter stolen, fenced through scrap metal dealers, with car manufacturers warning that a gap in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 enables dodgy dealers to buy them without checks required on where they came from. Bizarrely this crime only takes place in Britain, with an outbreak in California contained by new laws. Jenny Sims, an assistant chief constable at Cheshire police, who is leading on catalytic converter crime, tweeted this week that the police were dealing with the issue urgently, saying: “The links to SOC [serious and organised crime] are clear and can be terrifying for victims.”
A backlog in sourcing some new catalytic converters has compounded the cost for insurers, who have often had to pay for week after week of car hire as they scour the country for a replacement converter.
The Taylors’ first theft happened at 10pm while the Prius was on their driveway. “My wife spotted some men by the car, but by the time I ran down, they had gone in a flash. They do it with the speed of a Formula One wheel changer. With the converter gone, it sounds like the worst diesel tractor in the world.” That theft and the later one in October cost approximately £1,200 each, with Taylor having to pay the £250 excess each time.
Karen Gardiner from Sidcup in south-east London had the catalytic converter on her 2009 Lexus hybrid stolen last week while it was parked on her driveway. “The alarm did not go off – I didn’t hear a thing. But when I turned the engine on, it sounded like a moped. It could only do 10mph when I drove it to the Lexus main dealer.
“They said theft was so rife that it will be at least six to eight weeks before they could get hold of a new converter. So I rang around and eventually found a garage that had one. I paid £1,300 on a car only worth £5,000. I’ve now had a cat lock fitted, so it can’t be easily stolen again, but the insurer wouldn’t pay for that. It also means the car has completely changed – it’s noisier and vibrates more. I don’t feel like it’s the same car.”
On Toyota’s UK website there are nearly 1,000 postings from customers, many furious at the ease with which the converters can be stolen and the lack of warnings from the carmaker. Every day new reports go up of thefts.
Sarah Hardy had her converter stolen on Tuesday in Leeds. “My car and at least four others had the catalytic converters stolen at Temple Green park and ride, Leeds. It seems this is an issue which has been going on for some time and no measures have been put in place to prevent this. I also was not notified by Toyota that this was a problem either when I bought the car.”
Why are owners of potentially vulnerable cars not being informed that their vehicles will be targeted by thieves?
'Will', a Toyota Auris owner
A poster, “Will”, said that on Wednesday this week his Toyota Auris was targeted. “Daytime, residential area, apparently all done in less than five minutes. Why are owners of potentially vulnerable cars not being directly contacted and informed that their vehicles will be targeted by thieves? A lot of us took a plunge and bought hybrids, and we are now being left alone at the mercy of thieves, insurance companies and garages.”
Toyota said it was working closely with the insurance industry and that “we’re not aware of issues generally insuring older Prius thanks to the catalyst theft issue”.
Toyota admits the “huge and sudden spike” in crime caught it by surprise, and that there were delays finding replacement converters. In 2018 Toyota GB was asked for 60 replacement converters, but last year that number jumped to 4,800. But it has sourced new production, saying: “Now we have no backlog of orders, and people should be able to get a genuine Toyota part quickly from their dealer.”
The police advise the simplest way to prevent catalytic converter theft is to park in a garage, if you have one, or a well-lit, busy area. They also suggest fitting a protection device made specifically to cover the converter – known as a cat lock. A Thatcham-approved alarm should also detect and activate if the vehicle is tilted or lifted.
* Some names have been changed