UK drivers had £71.2million of parts stolen from their cars last year as a report shows how our motors have become an increasingly easy target for criminals looking to cash in on expensive components they can easily pinch.
An estimated 474,600 parts were unlawfully taken from vehicles in 2021, according to an investigation by insurer Direct Line.
While registration plates were the most commonly taken item, it is almost 40,000 thefts of precious-metal-laden catalytic converters are causing victims of car crime the biggest financial headaches.
Not only are these expensive to replace, the damage caused when hastily removing them can – in worst cases – write a car off entirely.
Rise of the cat burglars: An estimated 474,600 parts were unlawfully taken from vehicles last year and 40,000 of these were catalytic converts, according research by Direct Line
Direct Line said it sourced its figures from a Freedom of Information request to local policing authorities.
The data suggests that in the last three years the total value of stolen car parts has reached a whopping £744million – that’s the equivalent of nearly £680,000 being stolen every day.
Of the 474,000 components pinched in 2021 alone, 53,400 were number plates.
The insurer says the increased use of ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras to patrol our roads has led to a rise in criminals stealing registration plates to put on a similar vehicle they’re using to commit offences to avoid detection.
But while getting replacement plates is relatively inexpensive (Halfords chargers £5 per plate) the second most commonly stolen car part is a lot pricier to not just replace but also repair the damage caused during their illegally removal.
Catalytic converters, the exhaust emission control devices that are often referred to as ‘cats’, have become an easy target for criminal gangs – and some 39,900 were taken by thieves last year.
The combined value of all cats taken since 2019 is over £16million, Direct Line calculates.
The catalytic converter takes gases produced by petrol engines and converts them into water vapour and less harmful emissions via a series of chemical reactions before it comes out of the exhaust pipe
Palladium inside the devices is extremely valuable, hence why gangs are targeting cars to steal them
This photo provided by the Metropolitan Police shows a number of stolen catalytic converters recovered by officers in London in 2021
They are fitted to all cars with a petrol engine manufactured after 1993 and are designed to reduce the harmful pollutants emitted from vehicle exhaust pipes.
They do this by taking the gases produced and converting them into water vapour and less harmful emissions via a series of chemical reactions.
The devices are made up of an array of valuable materials including palladium, rhodium and platinum.
Criminal gangs are now well aware of this small fortune stored beneath your vehicle and the financial return of stealing the devices to extract the metals from them.
Driving a vehicle that’s had its catalytic converter stolen can land motorists with a fine of up to £1,000 because the car will be producing higher levels of pollution than they are allowed to
Direct Line, working with the University of Huddersfield on a new ‘Truth about Car Theft’ campaign, interviewed former prolific car thieves to understand the motive, means and opportunities for vehicle crime – and it highlighted the desirability of catalytic converters.
One convicted car thief said: ‘Cats are worth good money all day long. I know…ones…minimum £150. Even if you’re just doing them in a night, you could get 30 or 40.’
Rachel Armitage, Professor of Criminology at the university, said car parts theft is seen by criminals as ‘high reward and low risk’.
‘Many of the convicted thieves in our study were returning to the crime as it is an easy to commit opportunist offence, especially with many cars being left unsecured,’ she adds.
‘Ease of entering or stealing vehicles was a recurring theme, with a streamlined process of selling parts and property stolen from unattended vehicles to gain cash.’
Catalytic converter thefts can write off cars
Drivers will definitely know if the catalytic converter has been stolen from the underside of their car, even if the damage isn’t visible at first.
The exhaust will no longer be connected and make a much louder noise when driving – so much so that it will be impossible to not detect.
While the vehicle will still be driveable, removal of the device will trigger a warning light on the dashboard, reduce fuel economy and cause plenty of headaches from the additional exhaust roar.
While more skilled thieves are unscrewing them from the underside of cars, others are taking a more ham-fisted approach and sawing cats off, causing irreversible damage and resulting in some owners having to replace entire exhaust systems.
The catalytic converter is part of a vehicle’s exhaust system. Criminals in a hurry are sawing them off, causing irreversible damage that can result in repair bills of up to £3,000
And because there is often no third party to claim against, drivers using their polices to cover repair costs are also losing their No Claims Discount, unless otherwise protected.
You can buy devices to secure your catalytic converter
Concerned drivers can purchase devices that lock in around the converter to make it more difficult to remove.
Providers include Catloc and Catclamp, which can be installed on a number of different vehicles.
However, they’re not cheap, with prices as high as £250 for some models.
Motoring association MotorEasy estimates the average cost to replace a catalytic converter is up to £1,300, with over £900 of the cost being parts.
However, the AA says claims have amounted to anything between £2,000 and £3,000 when the devices have been sawed away from the exhaust.
In some instances, thefts have resulted in vehicles being written off entirely.
That’s because the cost of repairing damage caused can be deemed uneconomical by insurers if the car is of low value.
Victims of this crime can also face long waiting times to obtain a new catalytic converter to be fitted.
Toyota said in 2020 that it not envisaged the ‘rapid rise’ in thefts, which in turn had ‘impacted our ability to source enough of the parts we need in some cases’.
This means victims are unable to use their cars until a replacement part is fitted, else face a penalty.
Motorists caught by police driving a vehicle knowing the catalytic converter has been removed can be fined up to £1,000 because the car will be producing higher levels of pollution than they are allowed to.
Which cars are most commonly targeted by catalytic converter thieves?
While cats are fitted to all petrol-powered cars produced from 1993, criminals are most commonly going after those fitted to petrol-electric hybrid models.
These have been earmarked by the black market for having the best-quality parts because they contain a higher concentration of precious metals and are generally less corroded.
Insurer Admiral says the most susceptible hybrid models are the Honda Jazz, Toyota Prius, Toyota Auris and Lexus RX of all generations and ages.
Hybrid cars are ripe for thieves as the catalytic converters contain a higher concentration of precious metals and are generally less corroded. It’s no surprise then that the Toyota Prius – the most-bought hybrid in the UK – is among the list of cars criminals are preying on
Honda’s hybrid version of the Jazz is also on the shopping list of these organised criminals. The Jazz is popular among older drivers and therefore tend to have accumulated fewer miles, meaning their catalytic converters will be in good condition
The Toyota Auris hybrid (left) – the sister car to the Prius – has also been identified by Admiral as a prime target. The Lexus RX hybrid SUV (right) is another model that’s often preyed on by thieves of catalytic converters
Lorraine Price, Head of Direct Line Motor Insurance, said: ‘Our research shows the most popular car parts stolen, number plates and catalytic converters, are both on the outside of the car, meaning it is simply not enough to just double lock your vehicle.
‘Motorists should make sure to park in well-lit, populated areas and look out for CCTV cameras.’
> Want to know which are Britain’s most stolen car models? Read our exclusive report here
Police tips to keep your car safe from catalytic converter thieves
1. If possible, park in a locked garage or in a well-lit, densely populated area
2. If you don’t have access to a garage, park close to fences, walls or kerbs with the exhaust being closest to the barrier; this will make the theft more difficult
3. Avoid mounting your car on the kerb to park as it gives thieves easy access
4. If your catalytic converter’s bolted on ask your local garage to weld the bolts to make it more difficult to remove
5. Consider a ‘cage clamp’ which locks around the converter
6. Speak to your car dealership about a tilt sensor that activates the alarm if someone tries to jack up your vehicle
7. If you see someone acting suspiciously under a vehicle, report it to the police
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