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Canada Emerges as a Global Hot Spot for Auto Theft due to Rise in Incidents

Canadian politicians have recently stepped up efforts to address the nation’s auto theft problem, as global attention bears down on Canada.

Interpol has labelled Canada one of the world’s main source countries for stolen vehicles in a growing international market, and that’s having serious impacts on Canadians—not only driving up insurance premiums but also putting people at risk.

Only about a month into 2024, two carjackings had already occurred with young children in the backseat.

In one of those cases, a Toronto woman was loading groceries into her car when thieves drove away with her 4-month-old baby and 5-year-old in the back. Both children were found safe, though one was taken to hospital with minor injuries. The suspects were only 13 and 16 years old.
The lucrative black market is increasingly drawing young people into a life of crime. In Toronto, two-thirds of the carjacking arrests in 2023 involved minors, according to police data obtained by the Toronto Star. Carjackings in the Greater Toronto Area more than doubled over the past three years, and rose one-third nationally, said Terri O’Brien, president and CEO of Équité Association, at a national auto theft summit in Ottawa on Feb. 8.

The thieves have become more brazen, putting people in danger, authorities say. They’re also tech-savvy, able to hack a car’s start mechanism with relative ease.

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Meanwhile, insurance premiums are rising, impacting Canadians who aren’t direct victims of theft.

The crime carries low penalties and promises high profits in Canada, according to many who spoke at the government-hosted National Summit on Combatting Auto Theft in Ottawa. Those profits are fuelling organized crime.

Both Conservatives and Liberals have recently proposed policies to tackle the problem, and greater scrutiny is now focused on the root causes of the problem.

The recent national discussion has brought to light several factors behind the rise in auto theft, including lax penalties for theft, a lack of manpower for border search and seizure, and the technological edge criminals have maintained over car manufacturers.

Low Penalties

Transnational organized crime networks are targeting Canada because “the risk of prosecution is low and the financial reward is high,” Brian Kingston, head of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, said at the summit.

The low-risk, high-profit factor has been oft-repeated by others, including law enforcement officials.

“Only in Ontario, we saw 68 percent of those convicted serve a sentence of six months or less. We need to see stiffer penalties. We absolutely need to have a deterrence for these crimes,” Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique said at the summit.

He explained how the crime is being perpetrated at various levels, from teens on the street up through the higher echelons of large criminal organizations.

“Spotters” are paid between $75 and $100 to identify vehicles of interest—certain makes and models are more desired, and newer vehicles are targeted. Sometimes spotters put tracking devices on the vehicles.

Car thieves receive between $3,000 and $20,000, depending on the vehicle. The vehicles are taken somewhere to “cool off,” and then runners drive them to the Port of Montreal, in many cases. Sometimes they go to rail yards in the GTA.

The vehicles are loaded onto shipping containers, and profits run from about $60,000 to $80,000 per container. The vehicles are sold overseas, often for more than double their value, Mr. Carrique said.

Vehicles are shipped mostly to parts of Africa or Dubai, and sometimes sold via social media and other online postings. While many go abroad, some vehicles are also sold in Canada or dismantled and sold for parts.

Justice Minister Arif Virani said at the summit that the government needs to look into harsher penalties, but he didn’t provide details regarding changes the government would consider. He said the criminal organizations driving the crime wave must be targeted, not only the people committing the thefts on the street.
Mr. Virani noted 2019 measures that raised the maximum penalty for vehicle theft. However, Canada’s Criminal Code currently does not have a minimum sentence for car thieves who are on their first or second offence.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has said he would bring in mandatory minimum sentences for auto theft, tighten bail conditions for repeat offenders, ban house arrest for those convicted of an indictable offence, and ensure auto thieves spend at least three years in prison for a third offence. He announced some of his proposed measures during a press conference in Brampton on Feb. 5, and others in Montreal on Feb. 6.
Celyeste Power, president and CEO of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, also shared concerns at the summit that profits are high and penalties are low. She said insurance premiums increased last year an average of $130 in Ontario and $105 in Quebec due to theft. The two provinces are the hardest hit by auto thefts.

Search and Seizure Lacking

Stephen Taub of Toronto tracked his stolen Range Rover to the Port of Montreal using a tracking device aboard his vehicle. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) was notified of the vehicle’s location, but the agency told him it could not guarantee the vehicle’s retrieval, Mr. Taub told The Canadian Press.

CBSA reportedly told him that, due to manpower shortages, it might not be able to open the container for a few months, and the container might ship by then even though it had been set aside. Mr. Taub went to the CBSA office in Montreal personally and urged the agency to retrieve his vehicle; it did the following day.

“If I didn’t go there, I never would have gotten the car back,” he said. He is among many Canadians who have had more than one of his vehicles stolen, which is why he had a tracking device on it.

The Liberal government announced on Feb. 7 it would invest an additional $28 million to stem the export of stolen vehicles.

Mr. Poilievre said a Conservative government would invest $132.7 million over five years to increase the number of X-ray scanners used to detect stolen cars in shipping containers at multiple Canadian ports.

Authorities in the receiving countries have been seizing and returning some vehicles. But some have also complained that the crime is happening in Canada and it’s hard for them to solve it.

Ghana’s Economic and Organized Crime Office told the CBC last year that its investigators face threats from armed groups, and urged Canada to stop the flow of these vehicles to Ghana.


Thieves use various methods to start the car they want to steal, CBC reported. They may hold a device outside the owner’s home to scan for the key fob signal. These devices have become more sophisticated and can be used from greater distances to pick up the fob signal and replicate it to open and start the car.

Sometimes they tap into a car’s Controller Area Network using a node on the exterior, allowing them to  unlock and start the car.

Car manufacturers should include more advanced anti-theft devices in all new vehicles, says Équité Association, an organization that works against insurance crime. It has called on Transport Canada to legislate this.
Équité Association’s 2023 report on auto theft, released on Feb. 6, says a car is stolen every five minutes in Canada, adding more than $1 billion in costs to Canadian insurance policy-holders and taxpayers.

Noé Chartier and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.

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