Catalytic converter thefts: Valuable car parts: The Kat mafia takes on Germany

The professionals only need a few seconds for the theft.

Catalytic converter thefts: Valuable car parts: The Kat mafia takes on Germany

The professionals only need a few seconds for the theft. They use a small jack to maneuver up to the target vehicle and lift it up, along with a chain pipe cutter to saw the catalytic converter out of the car's underbody. The small and comparatively simple operation is an enormously lucrative criminal business that is slowly spreading in Germany. Internationally organized gangs are usually behind the theft of catalytic converters.

The road patrol of the ADAC alone was called more than 1000 times last year because of stolen catalytic converters, but the association assumes that the number of unreported cases is significantly higher. In North Rhine-Westphalia alone, according to the local State Criminal Police Office, there were thefts in the mid four-digit range in 2022. And the numbers are increasing: ADAC operations have more than doubled in the past two years.

The thieves want the rare precious metals in the catalytic converters, for which high prices can be achieved even for small quantities. Several hundred euros for a catalytic converter are quite realistic on the European black market, in the USA even more than 1000 dollars.

Catalytic converters are exhaust gas cleaners that are located between the engine and the exhaust. They convert carbon monoxide, which is toxic to humans and the environment, into less dangerous carbon dioxide. Valuable raw materials such as rhodium, platinum and palladium are hidden in the particulate filter of the catalytic converter, a honeycomb ceramic part.

The prices for these so-called PGM metals (Platinum Group Metals) peaked about two years ago. Since then the curve has flattened out but is still around $1000 an ounce. "You can't draw a parallel between the theft and the price development," says Julian Köhle from the International Platinum Group Metals (IPA) association. "But PGM prices remain high enough to motivate thieves."

Köhle blames professionalization in the scene for the increase in the number of cases: "Over the past few years, a kind of system has developed that was not there before." That means "that, for example, more people know that a catalyst can be valuable and where a buyer can be found".

The buyers of the stolen goods are believed to be mainly smaller scrap dealers and recyclers, but also specialized online buyers. From there, the stolen goods can then find their way into the legal cycle via recycling companies. Once the catalysts have been disassembled and the raw materials have been melted down, it is difficult to trace their origin anyway. This in turn poses problems for industrial companies: Those who process the raw materials concerned cannot necessarily be sure whether there may have been illegal deals at the beginning of the supply chain.

Not only private individuals, but also car dealers complain about damages in the millions. In other countries, the thefts have already taken on enormous proportions: In England and Wales, over 50,000 car catalytic converters were stolen between 2017 and 2021, and almost every third case of damage to motor vehicles was a cat theft. Hybrid models are particularly popular with thieves because the metals used are even more valuable.

Entire trucks with loads worth more than 4 million euros were hijacked several times in South Africa last year. IPA member companies have also suffered damage in the millions in this way, reports Köhle.

In the US, authorities uncovered a criminal ring that even earned hundreds of millions. Through an intermediary, the ring sold thousands of catalytic converters stolen from cars and trucks to a metals refinery for $545 million. "Kat Mafia" is already a well-established term for these groups.

Unlike in Germany, investigators in these countries are also more sensitive to the problem. In England, junkyards are strictly controlled, making it difficult for dealers to buy stolen goods. US law enforcement operates under a unified approach and communicates daily across multiple states.

There can be no talk of this in Germany - there is even a lack of basic information here: The theft of car catalytic converters is not even recorded separately, but falls under "parts theft" for investigators and insurers."The topic is not high on the agenda", criticizes Kohl. "Authorities and insurance companies should pull together."

So far, the police in Germany have mainly given advice on prevention - it is better to park the car in the garage than in remote streets, and the installation of alarm systems with sensors is recommended. By the way: The fact that the catalytic converter was stolen from your own car can be seen from the significantly louder engine noise. You are then no longer allowed to drive on public roads.

There's good news: New car owners have less to worry about. Because they are easier to access, thieves primarily target older vehicles with petrol engines. On newer models, the catalytic converter is installed closer to the engine, which means that removal takes longer and there is a greater risk of detection.

Removing the raw materials from an e-car battery is likely to be much more complex. The ADAC also believes that the phenomenon is a "current phenomenon". The IPA association, on the other hand, believes that an increasing extent is possible - "if you don't put a stop to it".

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