Catalytic converter thefts help drive £71m-a-year trade in stolen car parts

Almost half a million components stolen from vehicles as criminals target ‘high value, low risk’ thefts

UK motorists had more than £71 million worth of car parts stolen from them last year as thieves look to make “easy money” from valuable


Figures released by police forces show that an estimated 474,600 parts were stolen from vehicles in 2021, with number plates and catalytic converters the top components targeted by thieves.

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The data, obtained by Direct Line insurance, shows that in the last three years the total value of stolen cars and parts has reached £744 million, the equivalent of nearly £680,000 being stolen every day.

While stolen cars offer the potential for bigger payouts, some crooks are targeting individual parts as they are easier to sell on.

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Number plates were the most stolen item in 2021, with 53,400 thefts reported to police.

The growing use of CCTV and automatic number plate recognition cameras (ANPR) to police motoring offences is thought to be behind these thefts. Thieves can quickly attach stolen plates to other vehicles to disguise them and avoid detection.

This can lead to the owner of the original plates being hit with fines if their registration is then linked to a criminal offence.

While number plates can be replaced relatively cheaply, catalytic converters, which were the second most targeted component, are far more expensive. Replacements often cost more than £1,000 and the AA has reported some instances where the cost has exceeding £3,000. In some cases, vehicles have been written off due to the damage caused by theives removing the devices.

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The exhaust components, which help control pollutant emissions, are increasingly sought after due to the high value metals used in their construction. The converters contain a number of precious metals, including platinum, rhodium and palladium all of which have soared in value in recent years.

The devices can be cut from a car in a matter of minutes and crooks can then sell on the metals to dodgy scrap yards for an easy profit.

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Figures from 2019 and 2020 show that thefts of the part doubled over lockdown and the latest data from Direct Line show 39,900 cases of stolen catalytic converters reported by police last year. The insurer estimates that since 2019, £16m worth of converters have been taken.

As part of a new “Truth about Car Theft” campaign, Direct Line has partnered with the University of Huddersfield to carry out academic research among car thieves to understand the motive, means and opportunities for vehicle crime. One told researchers: “Cats are worth good money all day long. I know...ones…minimum £150.  Even if you’re just doing them in a night, you could get 30 or 40.”

Professor Rachel Armitage, Professor of Criminology at the University of Huddersfield, said those she interviewed regarded stealing car parts a “high reward, low risk” method.

She said: “Many of the convicted thieves in our study were returning to the crime as it is an easy-to-commit opportunist offence, especially with many cars being left unsecured. Ease of entering or stealing vehicles was a recurring theme, with a streamlined process of selling parts and property stolen from unattended vehicles to gain cash.”

Hybrid models are among the cars most targeted for their catalytic converters as the converter doesn’t work as hard as in regular petrol cars, meaning the precious metals are in better condition.

Last year Toyota, whose hybrid cars are among those most likely to be targeted by criminals, announced a free scheme to mark catalytic converters on older Toyota and Lexus models to help deter theives and track down stolen parts.

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