Exclusive data obtained by Which? shows that, between 2019 and 2020 alone, incidents of catalytic converter theft in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (Police Scotland refused our request) rose a staggering 104% on average. This rise is despite the various national lockdowns in 2020, when the vast majority of people and their cars were at home.
With a ban on petrol and diesel cars on the horizon, you'd be forgiven for thinking your car's catalytic converter would soon be resigned to the dustbin of history. For thousands of motorists up and down the country though, this decades-old emissions-control device has been the cause of significant repair bills and even complete write-offs, as a new crimewave has swept the UK.
A combination of factors including surging global demand for vehicles, as well as a slump in mining during the pandemic, has meant that the price of the precious metals contained within catalytic converters has risen exponentially. At the time of our investigation, an ounce of rhodium cost more than a brand-new Honda Jazz.
This hasn't escaped the attention of criminals. With a single scrap catalytic converter currently worth around £400, organised gangs are targeting dozens of cars each day. Our research reveals that older Toyota and Honda models are particularly at risk.
It doesn't help that we found ads offering cash for scrap converters on Facebook Marketplace. Posting such ads was made an offence under the 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act.
Read on to find out about thefts in your area, what authorities and car manufacturers are doing to tackle the problem and what Facebook told us. Plus learn how to minimise the chance of your car being targeted.
A removed catalytic converter will render your car unroadworthy, so as well as producing higher levels of emissions, it will be illegal to drive. A loud and rough engine noise is a key sign it has been cut out.
In the time it takes a thief to steal a catalytic converter, find out how these devices work and why they're so attractive to thieves.
Conurbations such as London and the West Midlands predictably show the largest numbers (with the 13,716 recorded incidents in 2020 making the capital the global epicentre of catalytic converter theft, according to police), but the problem has spread across the country, with areas such as Dorset seeing a 187% increase in 2020.
Behind each statistic is a motorist left stranded - often in the worst of circumstances. We've heard from drivers who've been thrust into desperate personal situations, and others who have caught the brazen and often violent thieves in the act.
See our table, below, to find out how badly your police force area has been hit.
|Police Force||Thefts from motor vehicle 2019||Thefts from motor vehicle 2020||Percentage Increase|
|Avon & Somerset||105||147||40%|
|City of London||0||0||0%|
(Data supplied after Freedom of Information requests from 25 of the UK's 45 police forces across England, Northern Ireland and Wales; Police Scotland refused our request. Supported by FOI information already published in the public domain.)
Online marketplaces also cause headaches for police. Transactions are usually offered in closed groups, but when we looked on Facebook Marketplace we found a number of advertisements offering cash for scrap catalytic converters, which was made an offence under the 2013 Scrap Metal Dealers Act.
Scrap metal dealers and collectors must now also be licensed, although frequently there aren't obvious credentials displayed by Marketplace users.
We contacted Facebook. It said: 'We have removed the listings brought to our attention for violating our commerce policies and have restricted users' access to Facebook Marketplace.'
Facebook also added that the sale of stolen goods is strictly prohibited, that its team of 35,000 experts work alongside technology to keep its platforms safe, and that people should report any suspicious accounts or posts.
Catalytic converter theft is a crime as old as the technology itself, but for years recorded thefts barely reached double-digit figures across many police force areas, and no car make or model was particularly preyed upon.
That's now all changed. Over the past three years, Toyota and Honda owners have been disproportionately affected for the simple reason that they're the brands with the greatest proportion of hybrid cars on the road.
The hybrid Toyota Prius has been on sale in the UK for well over 20 years, which along with other hybrid models, such as the Toyota Auris and Honda Jazz hatchback, are particularly sought after due to their higher concentration of precious metals.
This is often in a better condition due to hybrid cars typically producing fewer emissions overall.
Other high-risk vehicles include ever popular crossovers and SUVs, as well as commercial vehicles, all of which tend to sit higher off the road, making for easier access underneath.
Newer hybrid vehicles (including later Prius and Jazz cars) are less desirable to thieves, as their catalytic converter's metal content has been reduced, accounting for far fewer models being affected.
'I'd parked on a busy London high street for about an hour, so I had no particular concerns about my car being interfered with.
'Unfortunately, this was plenty of time for my car to be attacked. With no witnesses or CCTV, the police didn't investigate the matter further - which has also been the case with a number of my neighbours who've also fallen victim.
'Thankfully my Prius was repairable, so I guess I'm one of the lucky ones - although it did cost £650. The experience has made me a bit paranoid about where I park, but it hasn't dented my love of hybrids.'
Older models being targeted creates a further headache, as you risk having your car written off by your insurer if the cost of repair outweighs the value of your car.
Victims have reported repair quotes of upwards of £1,200, so it's little wonder our survey* found that 27% didn't notify their insurer and settled their repair bill privately.
Of those who did report it:
*(Crime and insurance reporting data: online survey, March 2021, 13,378 Which? Connect members.)
'My Honda was badly damaged after being targeted overnight outside my home. Despite thieves having to saw into my exhaust, neither I nor my neighbours noticed until the following morning, when I was greeted by a terrible noise from my engine.
'The cost of repair far outweighed the value of my Jazz. More annoyingly, the police offered no support other than giving me a crime reference number. I've now changed to a Peugeot 208 diesel.'
Responses by manufacturers have varied. We approached both Honda and Toyota, which have had markedly different strategies.
Honda said it revised its exhaust design in 2008 to position the catalytic converter in the engine bay to make it less accessible.
But when we asked it why Jazz models built after this date remained a prominent target for thieves, Honda didn't supply an answer. It also wouldn't tell us the potential number of cars that could be affected.
Honda has also issued the following statement: 'Honda UK recommends owners of these cars follow the advice given by police. This advice includes parking inside a locked garage, near walls or other vehicles to make it harder to get underneath the car.
'All Honda vehicles currently on sale are fitted with Thatcham-approved alarms as standard.'
Toyota, which would typically replace around 300 to 400 broken or faulty catalytic converters in the UK each year, was initially overwhelmed by the volume of customers who had been affected. This was compounded by the fact that the targeted models were no longer on sale and spare parts were no longer in production.
With a demand for many thousands of replacement catalytic converters in 2020, Toyota chose to retool and resume production of legacy catalytic converters in both France and Japan - a move estimated to have cost tens of millions of pounds.
Since then, Toyota has invested significantly in Smart Water forensic identification kits, which it is rolling out across its dealer network. It aims to make Toyota and Lexus models 'untouchable' by making the catalytic converters of 130,000 vulnerable cars entirely traceable.
Tens of thousands of kits are also being donated to police forces and the AA for use on cars of any make or model deemed at risk.
Toyota said: 'Catalytic converter theft is a serious problem in the UK and its effect on victims are emotional as well as financial. We continue to do all we can both as a manufacturer and working with police and others to help put an end to this crime.
'But ultimately as a car company our scope of action is always going to be limited.'
For much of the past decade, scrap metal crime hasn't featured highly on the national police agenda. There's been a number of reasons for this, not least the success of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act. Enacted in 2013 in the face of rising levels of copper theft, it coincided with a general slump in commodities prices, resulting in associated crime falling dramatically.
With police prioritising violent crime, they were caught on the back foot by this latest wave of scrap metal theft. Former police chief inspector Robin Edwards explains: 'When crime levels rose in 2018, a lot of the previous expertise had been lost from front-line policing, and it was a similar story across a number of government departments.'
It seems they're catching up fast. Recent high-profile raids such as the Met's Operation Basswood, which resulted in the arrest of 12 members of a large organised crime group, as well as similar raids in the West Midlands, have successfully disrupted criminal elements responsible for a large proportion of thefts.
For individual victims, however, there's still limited recourse for justice, due to a lack of traceability. Unless a stolen catalytic converter can be traced back to a targeted vehicle (near impossible unless it's specifically marked), it's very difficult to charge the person in possession of it.
Plus, many thefts occur without any CCTV evidence, and often by criminals in stolen or cloned vehicles, further hampering detection rates.
There are a couple of options for beefing up the security of your catalytic converter. Smart Water or similar forensic-marking tools make stolen catalytic converters traceable and are a strong tool in police investigations. But you're going to need to advertise this on your car in order for it to act as an immediate deterrent to thieves.
Alternatively, fitting a 'Catloc' or similar device (costing around £200) will make removal more difficult. But based on what car manufacturers and victims of theft have told us, these devices are of limited use and are only likely to delay a well-equipped thief by a matter of minutes.
If you don't have secure parking, further options are minimal, aside from reducing accessibility by parking on level ground and close to walls. If your parking spot is covered by CCTV, you increase the chance of police action being taken.
Importantly though - and the police cannot stress this enough - it's crucial you report any crime you're a victim of. If there is to be any hope in measuring the full scale of catalyatic converter theft and how to tackle it, it's vital each theft is counted, regardless of the potential for prosecution.