Auto Theft and Catalytic Converter Theft Are Up

Auto theft — a scourge of car owners that had all but disappeared in recent years — is coming back. And these days your car insurance may cover a smaller share of your financial loss than in decades past.

With new and used vehicle prices soaring during the pandemic, car theft is on the rise. After six years in which the number of vehicles stolen declined or held steady, data released this month shows thefts soared by 11% between 2019 and 2020, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Overall, there were more than 880,000 vehicle thefts nationwide in 2020 — about one stolen vehicle every 36 seconds, the NICB calculates — up from about 795,000 in 2019. Theft data for 2021 is not yet available, but prices for both new and used cars have reached record highs this year.

Also, as in the heyday of car theft in the early 1990s, when car radios were ripped dashboards, today’s thieves are targeting a new favorite auto part: the catalytic converter — an exhaust component worth up to $3,000 that catalyzes toxic emissions into less harmful gases. Data provider Been Verified reports a near-doubling nationally of “cat” thefts in just the first five months of 2021 compared with all of 2020. And the total thefts for that portion of this year are more than quadruple the number in 2019.

Here’s more on these twin waves of automotive thievery, including how insurance may not make you whole on a claim and what you do to protect yourself.

Vulnerability is higher, and unevenly spread

Car theft remains a smaller problem than it was in the early 1990s, when theft rates peaked at three times the current incidence. But the new increases come as sky-high prices for both new and used cars make it less likely that the payout for the loss of a stolen car will be enough to replace the vehicle. In addition, aiming to pay less for insurance when they’re driving less, some drivers have been increasing their deductibles — leaving them with a bigger share of a claim to pay if their car or its converter are stolen.

And as with most other ill-effects of the pandemic, the impact of increased car and “cat” thefts are felt acutely by some, while others are barely affected — and may even be enjoying reductions in risk.

There are big differences in the rate of theft — and which direction that’s headed — depending on where you live. Here are the 10 states with the highest incidence of theft in 2020:

  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Colorado
  3. California
  4. Missouri
  5. New Mexico
  6. Oregon
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Washington State
  9. Nevada
  10. Kansas.

As this list reflects, the west dominates car theft, and there’s no expert consensus about just why that is so. Some cite the region’s car-centric culture and its wide-open roads, which facilitate ready escapes over state lines. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) even attributes the prevalence of car thefts in the state in part to the implementation of the state’s Public Safety Realignment Act, which caused prisons to release inmates early beginning in 2011.

There’s a similar lack of clarity about why some of those states have seen rates surge between 2019 and 2020 (up by more than a third in both California and Colorado) while others have seen declines (New Mexico and Nevada).

Some hotspots for stolen cars also feature prominently among the worst locations for theft of catalytic converters. According to Been Verified, if current trends hold, California, Texas, Washington, Minnesota and Colorado will be the leading states for cat converter theft in 2021. Colorado is also among the states where such theft has been surging the most, the company says, along with Connecticut and Arizona.

What to do about car and converter thefts

The growth in auto thefts of all kinds during the pandemic was driven in part by more vehicles being underused and unattended, says Robert Passmore, Assistant Vice President of Personal Lines Policy at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Accordingly, Passmore says, you’re likely to be better off if you can garage your car, or at least park it in a place where it is well protected. He suggests supplementing those steps by using anti-theft devices such as alarms that can thwart thieves, and may earn you small discounts on your premiums that can help to subsidize their cost.

To discourage removal of your catalytic converter — a crime that “takes only minutes using some basic, readily available battery-operated tools from a local hardware store,” according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau — you can also install a cage, plate or cable to hamper thieves from accessing the component from beneath the car. Costs typically range from $200 to $800 or so. That price tab is likely less than the deductible on your premium, were you to have the converter stolen and replaced.