Photo: Pixabay

Photo: Pixabay

Many fleet vehicles have been idled or parked in storage areas during the COVID-19 pandemic. One consequence has been an uptick in part thefts from these parked vocational vehicles.

Thieves are stealing batteries, sawing off catalytic converters to sell for the rare earth metals within them, removing diesel particulate filters, stealing tires, or siphoning fuel. Sometimes, the vehicle itself is stolen, but the majority of incidents involve stolen parts.

During the pandemic, sheltering-at-home employees typically parked their company vehicles in the driveway or nearby their home on the street, which made them easy marks for the criminal element. For instance, thieves often target newer models for their tires, especially those with larger diameter tires.

In these situations, a driver discovers the next morning that their vehicle is on blocks with all four tires missing. It’s not just company vehicles that are being targeted. Police in many major cities  are reporting upticks in vehicle thefts, in general, since the start of the pandemic in mid-March, despite the fact that other crimes have decreased in those same cities as a result of the stay-at-home orders.

Catalytic Converters are a Popular Target

The theft of catalytic converters is nothing new, but the pandemic has accelerated these thefts throughout the country. Thieves aren’t interested in the catalytic converters themselves; they’re interested in the rare earth metals inside, which are expensive and easily recycled. Stringent emissions regulations, particularly in China, have forced global auto makers to source ever greater quantities of these rare earth metals, which has caused their prices to skyrocket.

The average catalytic converter contains one to two grams of three precious metals – platinum, palladium, and rhodium. That equals about 0.07 of an ounce, meaning 14 to 15 converters are needed to accumulate one ounce of the metals.

This is offset by the fact that the commodity prices for these metals have spiked in recent years, making catalytic converters as good as gold – actually, better. In comparison, the price of gold was just shy of  $1,704 per ounce as of May 8, 2020, but all of these rare earth metals have higher per ounce prices.

One metal used in catalytic converters is rhodium, which neutralizes nitrous oxides in vehicle exhaust. The price of rhodium peaked at $6,000 per ounce on April 20, 2020, but as the pandemic spread, vehicle production stopped around the world, lowering demand for the metal, which caused the price of rhodium to decline to $3,000 per ounce as of May 8, 2020. But, even at this depressed price, an ounce of rhodium is almost three times more valuable than an ounce of gold.

Another rare earth metal used in a catalytic converter is palladium, which, as of May 8, 2020, was $1,800 per ounce. The majority of the global demand for palladium comes from the auto sector to use in catalytic converters.

Similar to rhodium, the price of palladium has declined from its peak of almost $2,200 per ounce on April 18, triggered by the uncertainty of future vehicle production following the pandemic. Nonetheless, an ounce-to-ounce comparison, palladium is still more valuable than gold.

The catalytic converters are usually stolen from high-clearance vehicles, allowing crawl space beneath the vehicle. A driver will immediately know if the vehicle’s catalytic converter was removed by the loud noise the vehicle makes while running, sounding as if it needs a new muffler. It costs between $945 to $2,400 for parts and labor to install a new replacement catalytic converter.

Most thefts occur at night. A thief can slip under a vehicle and, with a battery-operated saw and metal-cutting blade, make two quick cuts and remove the catalytic converter. Some vehicles have catalytic converters that are bolted on, which are the easiest to remove. The theft can take as little as five to 10 minutes. With other models, thieves use a reciprocal saw to cut the catalytic converter from the exhaust systems underneath the vehicle.

Other models require thieves to use an acetylene torch to remove the catalytic converter. Stolen catalytic converters are sold to a recycler who has the equipment to perform the chemical process necessary to extract the metals.

Often, catalytic converter theft is by drug addicts. It’s a quick crime for a drug addict to get cash. Metal recycling companies will pay anywhere from $70 to $250 apiece for catalytic converters, which varies depending on the type of catalytic converter.

There are also more sophisticated thieves who know exactly what they were doing and already have buyers lined up for the stolen catalytic converters. Many are shipped to recycling companies in Poland, Canada, China, and Latvia, where they undergo a carbochlorination process that extracts the precious metals.

Securing Vehicles After Work Hours

Fleets need to reassess their policies on how company vehicles are secured after work hours, especially when sitting idle and unattended. It is necessary to alert drivers of this threat and to garage vehicles when possible or park them in a well-lit area. Enlist the participation of employees to secure company vehicles. Our job is to make it difficult, not make it easy for the thieves.

Let me know what you think.

[email protected]

About the author
Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Former Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Global Fleet of Hal in 2022. He also won the Industry Icon Award, presented jointly by the IARA and NAAA industry associations.

View Bio