The Sunday Mail
HAS your mechanic ever nagged or persistently asked you take your car for a “special” check even though it was in good running condition?
Or has he told you that there is a problematic hard-to-remove lock on your car that can only be taken care of at the garage, after which the vehicle started misbehaving?
Or, perhaps, you drove to a shopping mall then you started to feel that your car now had an unusual sound and performing below satisfaction after the excursion?
Well, if so, you have some reason to worry!
Some mechanics are stripping catalytic converters from cars of unsuspecting victims, especially those who own hybrid petrol cars.
Dealers, mostly of foreign origin, now frequent car breaking yards in search of the device and subsequently mechanics have noticed a business opportunity.
A single catalytic converter used to fetch around US$30 on the local market some two or so years back but the figure has since soared to US$200.
The catalytic converter is usually located in a box on the exhaust pipe under a car.
The stolen devices are understood to be offloaded in South Africa though the final market is said to be international markets, particularly Europe.
Most car owners do not obsess about vehicle parts and components, and are, therefore, not likely to know when these exhaust-control devices are removed.
New emission control regulations in Europe, America and China, which are designed to protect the environment from toxic and harmful emissions, have resulted in an upswing in the cost of some of the metals.
An ounce (about 28 grammes) of palladium currently costs US$1 353, up from US$200 a couple of years back.
Gold is marginally cheaper at US$1 311, while platinum is slightly above US$800 for the same quantity.
A Harare motorist, Kuda Silikombola, was an unfortunate victim of a “cunning” and daring mechanic.
“My vehicle was due for service and a seal needed to be replaced. That was just simple work which required the mechanic to come to my house and quickly get the job done, but he requested to take the vehicle to his workplace.
“His excuse was that there was a bolt that needed to be removed, so he needed to use gas bottles at his workplace,” she said.
“He took the car on a Sunday and brought it back the same day, and I did not drive it until Tuesday. When I finally drove it, I heard a funny sound each time I accelerated.
“Automatically, I knew my catalytic converter was gone.”
After interrogation, the mechanic confessed that he had indeed removed the catalytic converter for resale.
In essence, catalytic converters sieve engine pollutants into less harmful emissions like water vapour before they leave the exhaust pipes. While the theft of these devices was initially uncommon, the emergence of an elaborate network made up of mechanics, car dealers and cash-flush buyers is largely driving the recent soaring demand.
“It is true. The cases are on the increase. However, we need to collate the figures from various stations so that we are able to give you actual details,” the Zimbabwe Republic Police told The Sunday Mail Society.
“The figures, though, will just be an indication. Most of the cases are not being reported. Some of the people do not know that they are victims . . . while others knowingly participate in this illegal activity.”
Most catalytic converters used in vehicles are made from precious metal such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, which are all platinum group metals (PGMs).
Platinum is used as a reduction and oxidation catalyst.
Although it is an active catalyst and widely used, it is expensive and not suitable for all applications. Rhodium is used as a reduction catalyst, while palladium is used as an oxidation catalyst. In some instances, cerium, iron, manganese and nickel are also used.
Most of these metals are finding a ready market in Zambia, South Africa and other international markets.
It costs not less than US$400 in the United Kingdom.
It is not only those with new vehicles that are falling victim, as vintage cars are being targeted as well. Carmakers have been fitting these emission-control devices as far back as the 1970s. However, cars that are mainly targeted are hybrid.
Thieves have become adept at removing the devices with almost military precision. You may lose the device in a few minutes as you walk in and walk out of a grocery shop. In Zimbabwe, cars that are parked at shopping malls, garages, insurance salvage yards, homes and car sales are targeted the most. But there are also canny mechanics who dupe their clients into believing that removing the device improves the car’s efficiency.
Trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles are main targets as they have bigger devices.
Besides, SUVs like Toyota Land Cruisers, Mitsubishi Pajeros, BMWs and Volkswagens have a road clearance that makes their exhaust systems easier to access.
It is a growing pandemic that is affecting some regional countries such as Tanzania, which had to impose stiffer penalties to address the scourge.
Apparently, the thieves were preying on second-hand vehicles shipped from Asia that usually dock in the East African country before being transported to their final destination.
According to the Minerals Marketing Corporation of Zimbabwe (MMCZ), PGMs are among the top 10 mined minerals in the country.
PMGs have a high demand worldwide because of the wide variety of uses in industry.
The Central Mechanical and Engineering Department (CMED) argues most locals that steal and resell these devices do not know the end-use.
“Motorists should be cautious and regularly check their vehicles. Also, they should not use backyard mechanics to avoid such problems. The catalytic converter helps reduce global warming by reducing carbon emissions,” notes CMED managing director Mr Davison Mhaka.
How it is done
A motor mechanic, who operates in the Magaba area in Mbare, Aleck Nhambe, explained how criminals make off with the converters in a split second.
“It takes a skilled crook less than five minutes to go under the car and remove the converter as it is fairly exposed. The danger though is inexperienced thieves may damage a car’s fuel line or wiring, necessitating costlier repairs,” explained Nhambe.
He said an unusual deafening sound from the exhaust often develops after the device is removed.
Another car dealer, Tendai (surname withheld), adds: “Foreigners usually come here looking for these devices. They are mopping them up at a premium.”
While the thieves might make about US$200 from a catalytic converter, it can cost a vehicle owner as much as US$500 to replace it.
But that is not the worst part.
Motorists driving cars with missing catalytic converters are posing serious health challenges to the public and risk being fined by the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) under the Atmospheric Control regulations.
“Emission testing is done using a gas analyser for petrol engines and an opacimeter for diesel engines, and if a vehicle is found to be excessively emitting, a fine may be imposed and or the vehicle may be impounded. Repeat offenders face prosecution and may face imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months,” explained EMA spokesperson Ms Amkela Sidange.