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Etching Catalytic Converters: Does It Work?

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Aug. 5, 2021—Throughout a tumultuous 18 months that have featured shutdowns and car part shortages, car count booms and sky high used car prices, one of the only constants for the repair industry has been the constant need to replace catalytic converters. 

According to an April CarMD.com survey, the most common check engine light-related repair in 2020 was catalytic converter replacements. 


As a result, city police offices and municipalities have put together campaigns to help deter thefts. From painting catalytic converters to etching VIN numbers on them, local organizations have tried many things, but converter thefts remain high in many parts of the country. 


Last month, in an effort to go even further, AAA Colorado and the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority created the nation’s first-of-its-kind catalytic converter anti-theft program. Instead of just painting converters or doing a simple VIN etching, the program gave 10,000 Coloradans free devices that are chemically etched into the converters. The devices serve essentially as a sticker that has a number on it. Each converter is given a number and is registered in an online database.


But is that system working? Ratchet+Wrench spoke with Curtis Cookson, general manager of Academy Car Care and Repair in Colorado Springs, Colo., to find out. Academy Car Care and Repair is one of 67 shops that agreed to be a part of the program. 


“We’ve had a number of people call or come in,” Cookson said. “We have had a number of local news stations run the story, and every time I can tell because we get a bunch of people coming in at once.”


So far, Cookson hasn’t noticed any noticeable decline in the number of replacements that the shop has done since the program was implemented. However, that hasn’t convinced Cookson that it won’t work at some point. 


“I doubt it’s done anything at this point, but I think the main point is that recycle shops are going to begin to recognize they are on there, which will make them harder to sell and eventually it will help.”


Cookson compares it to a situation the Colorado Springs community dealt with several years back. There was rampant theft of copper being taken out of street lights. Instead of cracking down on the thieves, the city cracked down on the buyers, and then slowly the theft stopped. 


More than anything, Cookson sees this new etching method as a tool that will force salvage yards and recyclers to get more picky, which in turn will lower the theft. 


“The converter theft has been absolutely insane,” Cookson said. “But as I see it, once buyers get squeezed, the theft will stop.”

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