Fleet Maintenance Supply Experts

How to Defend Against the Costly Surge in Bus Catalytic Converter Theft

prevent catalytic converter theft in buses

It’s become a familiar story on news stations across the country. A church pastor or the manager of a school district’s bus fleet shows up in the morning to discover their buses have been stripped of their catalytic converters overnight.

Catalytic converter theft is on the rise. State Farm reports converter theft claims rose nearly 293% in 2021 and that they paid out about $34 million to customers in converter theft claims compared to $9 million the prior year.

Buses are sitting ducks for the growing number of catalytic converter thieves.

These thefts are concerning because the damage threatens bus safety and results in downtime that impedes the essential services they provide. Costly damages, safety threats and service disruptions make it a priority to understand and prevent bus catalytic converter theft.

In our role advising and supplying bus, truck and auto fleets of all sizes and types on their security and safety challenges, we at Imperial have seen the havoc caused by today’s rise in bus catalytic converter theft firsthand. Here’s what we know.

Why Do People Steal Catalytic Converters?

People steal catalytic converters for the precious metals they contain. The three primary metals trade at extraordinary high prices that rose considerably during the pandemic. In March 2021, platinum rose above $1,200 per oz., palladium was over $2,500 per oz. and Rhodium was close to $30,000 per oz.

The value of these metals in catalytic converters made them tempting targets during the pandemic when many people lost income and many vehicles were idle during lockdown. As supply chain issues pulled the price of rare metals up and police resources shrank, a window of opportunity opened for thieves.

To understand why catalytic converters are such alluring targets, it helps to understand what they do. These devices connect to exhaust systems and use precious metals to turn harmful gasses into less harmful ones. Converters are hung underneath and separate from vehicles both to isolate the extreme heat and the noise they emit. The fact that they are located outside the car and relatively accessible makes them easy to steal with the right tools and experience.

Criminals typically sell the stolen catalytic converters to scrap yards or buyers on the internet for anywhere from $50 to $875, according to the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI).

What Vehicles Have Catalytic Converters Stolen the Most?

Fleet vehicles are especially vulnerable to catalytic converter heists. Where vehicles are pooled and not under surveillance, thieves can move from vehicle to vehicle cutting catalyst converters free. TASB Risk Fund recounts that in 2021, thieves in Mobile, Alabama stole catalytic converters from 10 school buses in one foul swoop, resulting in over $30,000 in replacement costs.

Church buses are also attracting thieves. These vehicles as well as truck pools and passenger vehicle pools are often hit as they sit parked unattended overnight. Sacramento County in California suffered over $100,000 in loses from catalytic converters that were stolen from Toyota Prius models by thieves who broke into County facilities, according to Government Fleet.

All vehicles made after 1974 have catalytic converters and are potentially a target for stealing. That excludes electric or hydrogen powered vehicles which don’t burn gas or diesel. If you’re wondering whether thieves steal diesel catalytic converters. The answer is yes. In fact, they appear to be specifically going after yellow and white fleets. Representatives from TASB Risk Management Fund say catalytic converter theft claims are up 400% among members since 2019.

According to a report by Tulsa Oklahoma’s News on 6, one bus dealership owner in Tulsa says they get at least one call a week from someone who's had their catalytic converter stolen. He says one Tulsa business had 35 converters stolen off their delivery trucks in just one weekend.

Thieves Can Steal a Catalytic Converter in Minutes

Bus catalytic converters can be attractive targets. Their height means the vehicle doesn’t have to be jacked up in order to cut the unit free. Vehicles with low clearance are not much safer. Even if the operation requires jacking the vehicle up, experienced thieves can complete the operation in minutes.

Criminals usually operate at night and use a battery-operated saw to cut on either side of the unit to set it free. Because of how fast they’re working, thieves can damage the transmission and other components. For that reason, it is unsafe to drive a vehicle that’s had its converter stolen until you’ve performed a complete safety check. 

How do you know your catalytic converter’s been stolen? You’ll know it the moment you turn the engine over. There will be a loud exhaust sound because your muffler is disconnected. Other symptoms include a strong exhaust smell, the check engine light and sputtering if you try and drive.

What Does It Cost to Fix a Stolen Catalytic Converter?

It’s more than a loud annoyance to have your catalytic converter stolen. It’s illegal to drive without one and potentially unsafe as well.

Replacing one could run you $900 to $10,000 depending on your vehicle when you add in labor and the potential damage caused by thieves in their haste to steal. Your insurance may cover the cost, but you’ll still likely be on the hook for the deductible.

If you’re operating a bus fleet, the opportunity cost could be the greatest factor to consider. Parts delays have been a reality for months now and could affect how long it takes to get a vehicle back on the road. Delays mean lost revenue if you operate a for-profit business. Church buses that perform community service may have to suspend programs. And a school system that experiences a mass theft and is unable to transport students, may have to cancel classes.

Are there anti-theft devices for catalytic converters?

Aftermarket solutions for deterring converter robbers fall into three categories: cabling, shielding and alarming.

Cabling systems tend to tie up catalytic converters in strong cable. Some feature aircraft-grade cable and clamps that are designed to be difficult to cut in order to delay and thwart thieves.

Other safeguards involve placing a shield to cover the converter. Some solutions combine shielding and cabling for added protection.

An alarm system made specifically for catalytic converters is a third approach. Motion sensors sound an alarm meant to scare away thieves when they move the converter.

In addition to aftermarket products, some fleets have employed custom solutions like cages made of rebar and solutions involving welded bolts or cables. Users should be cautious of welding directly to a car’s frame, though. It can get noisy because exhaust systems are designed to be suspended from the vehicle in order to buffer sound.  

What’s the Best Way to Prevent Bus Catalytic Converter Theft?

Catalytic converter theft is a crime of opportunity and there are many things fleet owners or managers can do to remove or thwart the opportunity.

1.    Park to inconvenience thieves by spacing buses out. The walk slows them down and increases chances they’ll be spotted.

2.    Park for visibility in a garage or outside in well-lit areas. Try to park in view of traffic, either close to a building entrance or a main road.

3.    Security cameras are a useful theft deterrent and can help identify perpetrators after the fact.

4.    Dash cams can alert you to activity around trucks while it’s in progress. The footage captured can also aid in identifying thieves to law enforcement.

5.    Motion detectors that emit loud alarms or activate lights can help change a thief’s mind.

6.    Overnight security officers can be worth the cost. Bus converters aren’t cheap and a large-scale theft can be a disaster.

Find the Safety and Security Regimen That’s Right for You

Don’t let catalytic converter theft interrupt your essential bus services. Take steps to make stealing your units not worth the trouble. Your partners at Imperial are here with the security supplies and sage support to aid your efforts when you need it.

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