Putting the brakes on catalytic converter theft: Matt Gephardt tests some deterrents

Apr 28, 2022, 10:25 PM | Updated: Jun 19, 2022, 10:01 pm

SANDY, Utah — To say there’s been an uptick in catalytic converter thefts really undersells the crime.

In 2019, victims reported a hundred “cat” thefts in Utah. 2020’s theft count was over 600% of 2019’s. And then 2021’s figures more than doubled that haul with 1,361 thefts, according to figures shared with the KSL Investigators by the Utah Attorney General’s office.

1,361 catalytic converters were reported stolen in the state of Utah in 2021. The presence of the precious metals palladium, platinum and rhodium make the part valuable to thieves and expensive for car owners to replace.

Criminals looking at your car to make a buck can leave you with some pricy repairs. So, other than comprehensive insurance and keeping the car locked up in the garage, is there anything drivers can do to avoid a hefty replacement cost?

To find out, the KSL Investigators put three devices that promise to protect your car to the test.

The hassle for car owners

Few people understand the headache of a catalytic converter theft like Marla Love of Arte Primero Studio in Sugarhouse.

“It’s been a huge hassle,” Love said.

And “hassle” may not be a strong enough word. The after-school art program has had a total of ten catalytic converters stolen out of its three vans over the past two years.

Marla Love, director of Arte Primero Studio, told KSL’s Matt Gephardt the three vans used by her after-school program were hit by catalytic converter thieves ten times in the past two years.

“Sometimes they leave their equipment behind. I don’t know if they get startled or whatever,” Love said. “But they’re sawing away at the catalytic converter. Taking it out. But in the process, they’re damaging the vans.”

Love has shelled out thousands to fix the three vandalized vans — vans needed to transport kids after school and for summer camps.

“So now, we’re asking our own families to park the vans in their driveways because they’re safer in driveways than they are in an open parking lot,” she said.

What makes catalytic converters so valuable

A catalytic converter takes some really nasty gases spewed out by the engine, runs them through a catalyst and sends them out the tailpipe as much less harmful gases. To do that, a typical “cat” uses a few grams of three very, very precious metals. Platinum fetches $935 an ounce, according to precious metals website, Kitco. Palladium is worth $2,396 per ounce. And brace yourself for rhodium. Its current market price hovers around $17,200 per ounce.

Thieves can sell their stolen converters for a couple hundred dollars or more.

Chris Pappas of Hillside Tire and Service in Sandy says assuming a thief has room to crawl under a car, a battery-powered saw can cut out converters with relative ease.

“You can cut through these pieces of pipe in about a minute or so,” Pappas said.

Several new products promise to make it harder for thieves, and Pappas was eager to help the KSL Investigators test them out on a mock-up exhaust system with a real catalytic converter.

Putting anti-theft devices to the test

We started with a fairly inexpensive and universal product: a catalytic converter alarm bought off eBay for $30. Setup is straightforward. The alarm clamps to the car’s exhaust with a heat-resistant pad. You use a fob to activate the motion-based alarm so that if something jostles the exhaust of your parked car, it shrieks. And it really shrieks loudly.

Is it enough to deter a thief? Pappas said yes – it could make someone run off. But he believes it would be easy for a pro to dismantle the alarm and even tougher for car owners to remember to arm, disarm and replace batteries and such.

Chris Pappas of Hillside Tire tests out a $30 motion alarm that shrieks loudly if a car’s exhaust system gets jostled.

So, we moved on to the Cat Clamp. It wraps a 5/16th-inch thick stainless-steel cable around your catalytic converter several times, effectively caging it to your car’s frame. The cable is not cut proof. It took us 24 seconds to slice through it with a worn blade. But the thief would have to cut through that same cable at least four times, maybe more, and still cut the exhaust pipe twice while they’re under their car. Adding all that time to the crime would likely send the crook looking for an easier target.

The Cat Clamp cost us $210. One downside, Pappas believes most car owners will be out of their comfort zones installing this on their own. They may need some help from a shop.

The Cat Clamp is one of three devices KSL tested. It includes a 5/16th-inch cable that effectively cages the catalytic converter to your car’s frame.

Next up – the Cat Strap. The $130 dayglo orange sheath straps around the catalytic converter and the surrounding exhaust system using cables and clamps. Inside the sheath are three stainless steel cables.

That sheath is no push-over. It took us 54 seconds to cut it apart as it chewed the saw blade down nearly to the sharpness of a butter knife. The three cables inside also refused to stay still long enough for Pappas to get a good enough grip with the blade to cut.

“This one has deterred me as a thief,” said an exasperated Pappas. “Even with proper tools, this one is very difficult, if not almost impossible, to get through.”

The Cat Strap conceals three stainless steel cables in a sheath that gets strapped to a catalytic converter and much of the exhaust system.

Even its bright orange color might be enough to deter.

“It’s an eye catcher,” Pappas said. “If you’re a thief sliding under the car, it’s going to make you wonder what it is.”

So, it is a win for the Cat Strap, a device Pappas believes is a relatively easy install for most car people. But whether you go for the strap, the clamp, or the $30 alarm, something may be better than nothing when a thief starts eyeing your car’s catalytic converter.

Utah’s latest anti-theft measure

You should know that last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill that aims to crack down on catalytic converter thefts in Utah. It requires pawn shops and second-hand stores to carefully document any transaction involving a catalytic converter. The new law also gives law enforcement the authority to require a pawn shop to keep a possibly stolen converter for 30 days, giving the owner more time to prove its theirs so they can get it back.

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Putting the brakes on catalytic converter theft: Matt Gephardt tests some deterrents