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Jon Durzi had his car stolen from the airport strip in Toronto on Jan. 12. Today he finally had it returned after it was tracked through Toyota Canada, five months later, in Barrie, Ont.TANNIS TOOHEY/The Globe and Mail

Canadian auto insurers lost more than $1-billion last year from stolen vehicles as organized crime rings helped push up car thefts by nearly 50 per cent in Ontario and Quebec.

In a report released Tuesday, Équité Association estimates the insurance industry nationally lost more than $1-billion in vehicle-theft claims in 2022, up from $700-million in 2021. And Équité, a not-for-profit organization that assists in insurance fraud and crime investigations, expects the losses to continue to climb.

“There is no doubt that vehicle theft has reached a national crisis in this country,” Équité Association chief executive Terri O’Brien said in a statement. “We know for certain that vehicles in Canada are being stolen by domestic and international criminal organizations. The proceeds are then being used to finance domestic drug trafficking, arms dealing, human trafficking, and international terrorism.”

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In Ontario, which saw a 48.3-per-cent spike in auto thefts last year, insurers paid more on vehicle theft claims in the first half of 2022 than for the entire year in 2020. In both Ontario and Quebec, which saw the highest provincial increase in thefts last year at 50 per cent, organized crime rings are particularly targeting newer SUVs that were produced after 2017.

In Alberta, which saw an 18-per-cent increase in thefts after years of decline, thieves are primarily stealing older vehicles with a preference for trucks. Atlantic Canada had a 34-per-cent increase in theft claims, with New Brunswick seeing the most thefts because it borders both Quebec and the U.S., making it “ideal for thieves looking to access borders quickly,” the report said.

Bryan Gast, vice-president of investigative services at Équité Association, said the increase in claims directly impacts Canadians at a time when inflation and affordability are putting excess strain on consumers.

And while there is no specific data on the direct impact the spike in car thefts is having on insurance premiums, he said theft is one of many factors that is considered when underwriting policies.

“We don’t call this a victimless crime. It’s far from that,” Mr. Gast said in an interview. “These organized crime groups are not only benefiting financially from this theft, but these vehicles are also being used for other serious crimes overseas, such as terrorism.”

The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates auto theft in Ontario makes up approximately $125 of the average Ontario auto premium, which was about $1,700 in April of 2023.

Mr. Gast says the metropolitan areas of Toronto and Montreal are rich hunting grounds for organized auto theft crime rings as they are densely populated areas with a high volume of targeted vehicles. In addition, the two provinces are both in close proximity to the Port of Montreal, a popular shipping route that is being used to export the vehicles.

Jon Durzi, a Barrie, Ont., resident, had his 2022 Toyota Highlander stolen earlier this year while attending a work conference near the Toronto International Airport. Within 24 hours, through an internal tracking device his dealership had installed, the SUV was located in an abandoned parking lot beside several shipping containers. It was one of 15 vehicles the police retrieved, Mr. Durzi said.

Mr. Durzi had been waiting more than five months for his SUV to be repaired after the wiring was damaged, with certain parts on back order. He received the vehicle Tuesday. The delay pushed his insurance policy close to the maximum amount he can claim for a rental car, even with a price discount for dropping down a vehicle size.

“We are used to a large family vehicle to drive around our kids and two dogs – but if we rented a similar size, we would have been out of pocket in 88 days,” Mr. Durzi said. “Now, we have to take two cars if we are travelling together, which is adding fuel and mileage to our costs.”

Tracking devices are one of several tools Mr. Gast is recommending to Canadians, along with steering or pedal locks, theft deterrent decals, an audible alarm or installing a kill switch, which activates an emergency brake to stop the car.

Several insurers, such as Aviva Canada, Intact, TD Insurance and Desjardins, are offering incentives to policyholders in certain areas – or those with high-risk vehicles – to install tracking devices for free, a cost that can add up to $400 in some cases.

“Whether stolen vehicles have been re-numbered or exported, profit margins are high and worth the low risk of consequence for criminals, so we have to combat this theft collaboratively,” Mr. Gast said.

“One organization is not going to solve this on their own. It’s about working with Interpol, it’s working with the police of jurisdiction, the auto manufacturers, the insurance industry and the financial industry to make it more difficult to steal the vehicles as well as more difficult to export them.”

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