Cat thefts on the rise

AA reports rise in breakdowns from catalytic converter theft

Thousands of cars targeted

21 April 2021

  • ‘Explosion’ in damage caused by theft of vehicle parts
  • Catalytic converters targeted for their precious metals
  • AA sees reported thefts rise from just 58 to 3,910 in three years

Urban and suburban car owners have fallen victim to a surge in catalytic converter thefts leading to breakdowns and expensive repairs, AA patrols have reported.

The AA is working with police and vehicle manufacturers to combat the crime wave and help drivers protect their vehicles.

More than half of incidents occur within Greater London. Local AA patrols will be supporting a crime prevention initiative on Friday 23rd April in Sainsbury’s Dartford and Sunday 25th April in Morrison’s Sidcup, during a week of action by the Metropolitan Police to mark and register catalytic converters free of charge.

The number of breakdowns attended by the AA due to catalytic converter thefts has been increasing in recent years. Cases rose by 893%, from fewer than 60 in 2017 to nearly 600 in 2018. Numbers increased by a further 483% to more than 3,000 in 2019. Although cases plummeted during the first lockdown, they soon rallied, reaching nearly 4,000 in 2020.

Thieves are targeting cars in workplace car parks which they know will be there all day
Iain Gillespie, AA Patrol leader

Patrol leader Iain Gillespie receives 3-4 reports per week of damage caused by catalytic converter theft, from his team of 27. He says he has never seen anything like it.

Iain said: “Thieves are targeting cars in workplace car parks which they know will be there all day, so they’re striking during daylight or at night at people’s home address.

“It will normally come through as a ‘noise from under vehicle’. The patrol will call the member and say that they’re on the way but suspect the cat has been taken, at which point the customer often checks under the car and sees wires hanging down.

“Watching people fall apart in front of you is horrible. It’s not what a patrol is used to as normally with a breakdown, somebody hasn’t been the target of a crime. It also leaves people with anxiety about where to park; if it was taken in a place they normally park, such as at home or work, they have little choice but to continue parking there.”

The resulting damage can cost thousands of pounds to repair, and lead times for replacement parts can be up to two months. It is usually possible to claim for the damage on insurance, but in some cases the vehicle may be a write-off.

There are some measures drivers can take to protect their vehicles, such as contacting the manufacturer as they may be able to retrofit a ‘catlock’ - a protective cage that makes it harder for thieves to get the catalytic converter off. The parts can also be marked with a serial number for identification. Drivers can also put a sticker on the windscreen to show the car has been marked. While this doesn’t always prevent theft, it does help the police ascertain if a part is scrap or has been stolen.

Edmund King, AA president, said: “Modern cat burglars stealing and selling cats for cash are part of a criminal chain.

“Catalytic converters were introduced to reduce carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides in the exhaust gas. Hybrid cars are often targeted as they use the catalytic converter less, so the precious metals are often in a cleaner state. They are then sold illegally; the precious metal is stacked into containers and shipped across the world to be refined, sometimes ending up back in your new state-of-the art car. Thankfully the chain stops there as the new models have less precious metals and are designed to prevent theft.

“The AA is determined to help stop this crime explosion and is working with police and manufacturers to help get more cars water marked so that cat cops can target rogue dealers and organised gangs and prove that the cats were stolen.

“The motor industry is helping by offering replacement cats and cages at cost price and helping the national roll-out of smartwater marking of cats.”

Case study: North London Fashion Stylist

Becky John, a London fashion stylist whose catalytic converter was recently stolen, said: “My catalytic converter was stolen at the beginning of the month by a horrible gang of thugs. My car is in the garage now waiting for a new one - luckily my insurance company have been brilliant covering the cost which is great because my car is 14 years old!

“I obviously reported the whole incident to the police. Catalytic Converter crimes are rife here, most evenings someone gets ‘done’. The police said that it’s very common for the thieves to strike again once the car is back on the road with a spanking new catalytic converter.

“I am now looking for a catalytic converter cage or plate that I can install to stop this rather horrible crime happening to me again, as I doubt whether my insurance company will pay up twice!” 

Reduce risk

To reduce the risk of theft of your car's catalytic converter:

  • Garage your car whenever possible
  • Park in well-lit busy areas
  • Be wary of people working under cars in public areas
  • Consider marking the metal shell of the converter with a unique mark, so that if it is removed by thieves it will be easier to trace back to your vehicle
  • Consider fitting a cat cage

For more information see our Catalytic Converter Advice