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Why are catalytic converters such an attractive target for thieves?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

An actor who starred in the soap opera "General Hospital" was shot and killed in Los Angeles a few days ago. Johnny Wactor interrupted thieves stealing his car's catalytic converter. The National Insurance Crime Bureau says that happened more than 30,000 times last year. So why are catalytic converters such an attractive target? We're going to ask Benjamin Preston. He's an automotive reporter with Consumer Reports and joins me now. Good morning.

BENJAMIN PRESTON: Good morning.

FADEL: OK, so Benjamin, let's start with the basics for a car dummy like me. What does a catalytic converter do?

PRESTON: Well, a catalytic converter basically heats up so that it can purge the noxious gases that are coming out of your car's engine before they exit into the air that we breathe. And there are a bunch of precious metals inside this ceramic honeycomb that help that chemical reaction take place. And that's really what the thieves are after.

FADEL: And why are they so attractive to thieves?

PRESTON: Because they're really easy to steal. Especially for taller vehicles like trucks, a thief can just shimmy underneath the vehicle with a battery-powered reciprocating saw or Sawzall and hack it off in a few minutes. So they can be gone and have several hundred dollars worth of something to sell in a couple of minutes.

FADEL: Now, catalytic converter thefts reached a record high two years ago. Last year, though, some good news. Those thefts dropped by more than half. What changed?

PRESTON: Well, the prices for the precious metals inside the catalytic converters have come down significantly. You'll find three precious metals inside of these things. There's platinum, palladium and rhodium most often. And the rhodium prices, in particular, it's an extremely rare precious metal, and it had reached a price of almost $20,000. Actually, it was up to almost 30 for a little bit there.

And that made it incredibly attractive to thieves because there's a couple of grams of that in every catalytic converter. So that's a few hundred dollars. Now, you know, it's come down to $4,500 an ounce, which is still a lot of money. But, you know, you have to think of it from the thief's perspective, you know, what - how much risk are they willing to take for a potential problem with law enforcement?

FADEL: So is any catalytic converter a target? I mean, are there cars that are more targeted over others or is it just any vehicle?

PRESTON: Well, like I mentioned before, trucks are especially attractive because there's a lot of room underneath. It doesn't take much work to just slide underneath and hack off the catalytic converter. But also hybrids and cars that have two or more catalytic converters, those are more common now. And, you know, newer cars have larger catalytic converters. And those are going to be more attractive to thieves because it's just a bigger, more expensive part. But that's also what makes it, you know, such a bummer for whoever's getting their catalytic converter stolen.

FADEL: What can drivers do to protect themselves?

PRESTON: Well, there are a number of things you can do. Mostly, it's the common sense stuff. Just park in a well-lit area or, you know, a secure lot. There are some devices you can buy. But really, just try to keep it in a secure area where it's not going to be attacked by thieves.

FADEL: Benjamin Preston covers the auto industry for Consumer Reports. Thank you, Benjamin.

PRESTON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "MAGIC SMOKE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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