A spike in demand for precious metals used in making catalytic converters – emission control devices — has made Toyota Prius vehicles that are more than 10 years old unlikely targets of thieves. The frequency of theft claims for 2004-09 Prius models was more than 40 times higher in 2020 than in 2016. In comparison, theft claims for all other 2004-09 vehicles barely changed during the same period.
Those are the highlights of a new report released on Thursday by the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit financed by the insurance industry.
“Car thieves know their market,” Matt Moore, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, said in a statement. “The demand is high for catalytic converters, and they seem to know which ones command the highest prices, like those on the older Priuses.”
Prices have soared for metals like platinum, rhodium, palladium and others, due to lower mining production in recent years, a trend that was exacerbated by the pandemic. Hybrids like the Prius need more of these metals for their catalytic converters to function properly, the report noted, as they don’t get as hot as those in conventional vehicles, since the combustion engines of hybrids do not run all of the time.
Overall, catalytic converter thefts rose from about 100 a month in 2018 to more than 1,200 a month in 2020, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, but while a range of vehicles are stolen for their metal-rich devices, the catalytic converters from some models command higher prices on the scrap market than others because they contain more of the precious metals, according to the new analysis.
For example, the recent scrap price for a catalytic converter used in the 2004-09 second-generation Prius 1.5 was $1,022, according to AutoCatalystMarket.com. In comparison, the converter used in General Motors models like the Chevrolet Impala and Pontiac Grand Am from 1999-2006 was valued at $269, and one used in the 2007 Ford F-150 FX4 was priced at $143.
The researchers explained that the Highway Loss Data Institute’s findings were not based on specific components reported stolen in insurance claims, which are not recorded in the institute’s database, but on the consistency of the dollar value of the typical claim during the high-theft years – about $2,500 to $3,000 – a customary amount needed to replace the catalytic converter and exhaust system.
In addition, catalytic converters are not stamped with vehicle identification numbers, and as a result, it isn’t easy to identify stolen ones.
The problem of stolen components sold for precious metals exists on a global scale. Second hand cars exported mainly from the United States, the European Union and Japan to countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, are often stripped of their catalytic converters and sold on the black market before the cars reach their new owners, contributing to environmental, health and safety issues.
But not only older cars are at risk for theft, the report stated. The recent tightening of vehicle emissions standards, “means that the newest catalytic converters require more of the valuable metals.”