A Calgary non-profit helping at-risk youth. A Boys and Girls Club in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. An ambulance dispatch in Delta, B.C. A furniture bank in Toronto. A car auction company in Moncton.
All of these organizations, along with hundreds of individuals across Canada, have been the victims of the same crime over the past year: thieves stealing the catalytic converters from beneath their vehicles.
The price of replacement and repairs can be thousands of dollars — per vehicle.
Right across the country, there has been a surge in catalytic converter thefts,* often happening in the dark of night and unnoticeable until the unsuspecting victim turns on the ignition the next day.
“We came to work on Monday morning and our service tech started to start up the trucks. And next thing you know, all the trucks were just making so much noise,” said Rick Oosterveld, owner of Oosterveld Heating and Air Conditioning in Guelph, Ontario.
“There is no exhaust systems on them. Somebody stole the catalytic converters off the trucks.”
All seven of his company’s vans were hit last month.
“We have them on camera and they just crawled under every truck and cut the catalytic converters out, and then ran away,” he said.
Oosterveld is far from the only victim. Waterloo Regional Police reported 131 catalytic converter thefts in the first two months of 2021.
And that is just one region, in one province, over one short period. The problem is plaguing every province and it’s only getting worse.
Take British Columbia, for example. The number of claims submitted to the provincial auto insurer, ICBC, went up 10-fold over five years — doubling between 2018 and 2019, then doubling again in 2020. There were more than 1,500 thefts last year, according to the corporation.
“We’re seeing coast to coast in Canada as well as into the United States and in other parts of the world,” said Bryan Gast, National Director of Investigation Services at the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
“The theft of catalytic converters is by no means something new to law enforcement, or anybody across Canada or into the United States. What’s really prompted the increase in these thefts is the precious metals, and the values of those precious metals, which are contained in the catalytic converters,” he told Global News in an interview.
What are catalytic converters?
Catalytic converters have been in widespread use in North American vehicles since the 1970s. Their purpose is to make car exhaust from internal combustion engines less toxic, converting substances such as carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbons, into less harmful carbon dioxide and water vapour.
The part looks like a shell wrapped around the exhaust pipe (it’s actually one pipe going in from the engine and another for the exhaust to blow out).
The inside is a ceramic honeycomb lined with precious metals that react with the toxic emissions, at a temperature of approximately 426 C.
Those metals — platinum, palladium and rhodium — are what the thieves are after.
Very precious metals
Over the past five years, the value of these metals — platinum and rhodium, in particular — has risen significantly.
Palladium went from about $200 USD an ounce 12 years ago to nearly $2,300 today. By comparison, the price of gold rose from approximately $1,100 an ounce USD to just over $1,700 in the same period.
Then there’s rhodium. It was worth just over $1,100 USD an ounce in early 2009; now it’s valued at more than $26,000 an ounce.
“That’s why some of these organized crime groups and individuals are trying to get their hands on them,” said the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s Gast.
“We’re working with our partners, working with law enforcement, the auto manufacturers, other stakeholders to try and make it not so easy for them, because right now these units aren’t marked in any way,” he explained.
“If it’s marked and traceable back, it will hopefully diminish their ability to get rid of some of this product. And right now, that’s the problem. It’s being sold into the black market.”
It’s not just the victims of thefts paying a price for these crimes. There have been at least two deaths in the past two months linked to the suspected thefts of catalytic converters.
In Burnaby, B.C., RCMP say a man was crushed under a car early Tuesday morning in what appeared to be a suspected theft*. A passerby spotted his body underneath the BMW sedan.
“The individual was deceased… and in the process of some sort of property crime,” Burnaby RCMP Cpl. Mike Kalanj told Global News on Tuesday, but could not confirm what exactly the victim was trying to steal.
“There were some tools that were there. It appears he wasn’t able to start whatever it was he was trying to get, so I can’t say for certain. I think there is a lot of speculation that it’s a catalytic converter because of the cost of those right now.”
A similar situation happened in Calgary, in early February, in which police believe a vehicle fell on top of a man as he attempted to steal one of the parts.
How to prevent thefts
Gast told Global News public awareness is the first step to preventing your vehicle from being hit by thieves.
But above and beyond that, he suggests the following:
“One of the easiest ways is to park in your garage. Not everybody has the ability to park in the garage, or not everybody has a garage, so even if you can park in a well-lit area, it’s just something that makes a little bit more difficult because, obviously, they have to get under your vehicle.”
“Vehicles that are a little bit higher off the ground makes it a little bit easier for these thieves,” he added. “Some of the lower cars. They have to be jacked up on one side to be able to get underneath that.”
“It takes a little bit of time to do it. But just being aware. Look for suspicious activity in and around your neighborhoods, and report that.”
— with files from Eric Sorensen, Emad Agahi, Katherine Aylesworth and Kieron O’Dea
*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story erroneously used the word robbery to refer to a theft. This story has been updated accordingly.