Thieves are breaking into cars to steal a metal more valuable than gold

Just checking.
Just checking.
Image: AP Photo/Al Behrman
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There’s treasure in your car, and it’s just waiting to be stolen.

All but the jankiest of automobiles may now have something of interest for enterprising thieves with an eye for the market: A sudden boom in palladium prices has prompted people to rip out catalytic converters from parked cars, which can then be sold as scrap metal. (In one particularly brazen example, thieves in London held up midday traffic to lift the device from a parked Honda Jazz.)

The rash of thefts come after an upswing in the cost of palladium, related to the European diesel emissions scandal and new emissions regulations for Chinese cars. Palladium and platinum are both used in catalytic converters, which turn harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide into more benign water vapor and carbon dioxide. Palladium is the metal of choice for cars fueled by gasoline—a move away from diesel in Europe, as well as more demand for environmentally friendly cars out of China, has helped drive up its price.

As Bloomberg reports, prices for the silvery-white precious metal surged around 50% in the past four months. A decade ago, it cost less than $200 an ounce; as of today (Jan. 29), it’s $1,353.10 an ounce. Gold is marginally cheaper, at $1,311.60, while platinum, at $819.20, is a comparable bargain.

The precise targets for thieves seems to vary depending on the region: In Midlothian, Virginia (population 58,000), more than 15 catalytic converters since the beginning of December were stolen from cars parked outside apartment complexes. In the UK, thieves favor European automobiles such as BMW, Audis, and VWs. It’s especially galling for their owners: The converters themselves may sell for up to $400, but the repairs are as much as seven times as expensive.

In Missouri, especially canny robbers have set their sights on U-Haul rental trucks. The anti-pollution devices were taken from some 20 parked trucks at one U-Haul location near St. Louis earlier this month. It’s a smart choice because larger vehicles use more platinum-group metals in their converters. Ordinary cars, light-duty trucks, or motorcycles might average between 2 and 6 grams of the precious metal, while larger-engine SUV’s and trucks may have almost an ounce.

Though the devices themselves are easy enough to remove with an electric saw, scrap metal dealers are ordinarily obliged to ask for a photo ID from sellers, which is then saved in a searchable database. Thieves may find divesting of their ill-gotten gains somewhat more difficult than obtaining them in the first place.