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The number of vehicles stolen in Canada has steadily risen in recent years.Brian Kerrigan/The Globe and Mail

Car thefts in Canada are on the rise. In the last year, Ontario and Quebec have both seen about a 50-per-cent increase in auto thefts; Alberta has seen an 18-per-cent increase after years of decline; and Atlantic Canada has seen a 34-per-cent increase in theft claims.

A car is stolen every six minutes in Canada on average, according to a 2023 report from the Canadian Finance and Leasing Association. Équité Association, a not-for-profit organization that assists in insurance fraud and crime investigations, reported the insurance industry lost more than $1-billion in 2022 in vehicle-theft claims, up from $700-million in 2021.

What is driving the increase in auto thefts, and what can you do to protect your vehicle? Here’s what you need to know.

Why is car theft in Canada on the rise?

It was common for vehicles to be stolen and resold in local markets in the past. Now, however, organized crime rings are a major driver of the increase in car thefts, Clare O’Hara reports.

Canada “is becoming a source country for organized crime rings who are coming in, stealing vehicles and exporting them out of the country,” O’Hara says in Tuesday’s episode of The Decibel podcast. “When we think about it, we actually have really good waterways to do this,” she says, pointing to the Port of Montreal and Halifax as spots thieves are using to get cars into shipping containers.

The stolen cars often end up in Europe, but Interpol tracking shows they can show up as far as South America, Africa or Australia. The cars, or individual car parts, are sold by domestic and international criminal organizations and the proceeds are used to finance domestic drug trafficking, arms dealing, human trafficking and international terrorism, as Équité Association chief executive Terri O’Brien told O’Hara.

The most commonly stolen cars

Every year, Équité Association releases its list of the Top 10 Most Stolen Vehicles across the country. SUVs that were produced after 2017 are often the most targeted. The Honda CR-V built between 2016 and 2021 is the most commonly stolen vehicle in Canada, followed by the Lexus RX series built in the same period.

What is it about these cars that makes them more susceptible to theft? Technology has made it easier to steal newer vehicles, but O’Hara also points to the resale value: “Obviously, any type of luxury vehicle is going to cash in for organized crime rings. They’re going to be able to get a lot of top dollar for that.”

If you break it down by province, for example, Lexus is one of the most stolen cars in Ontario because it’s more commonly found in cities, like Toronto, than in rural areas. Meanwhile, trucks such as the Ford F-350 are common in Alberta or Western Canada because they’re often popular with farming communities.

How to protect your vehicle

Multi-layered common sense

Équité Association recommends a “multi-layered approach” to prevent your vehicle from being stolen, including a series of “common sense” measures:

  • Keep your doors locked at all times
  • Never leave your keys in the ignition switch
  • Make sure the windows are completely closed
  • Park in a well-lit area or a locked/secure garage, if possible
  • Don’t leave your car unattended with the engine running, especially in the winter

Install visual or audible anti-theft devices

The Halton Regional Police Service, along with most insurance companies, recommends secondary layers such as:

  • Use a steering wheel and/or pedal lock
  • Install an audible car alarm that will go off if someone is potentially tampering with your vehicle
  • Consider purchasing a video surveillance system and ensure your cameras are properly placed and functioning for 24-hour use
  • Attach stickers, decals or other unique identifiers to your car to make it stand out
  • Install a kill switch, a switch the driver manually turns to the off position, severing the electrical connection between the battery and the onboard electronics

Protect your key fob

Electronic or keyless entry cars have become a target because thieves have developed methods of amplifying key fob radio signals to unlock and start cars. Keyless entry works by using short-range radio waves that transmit a signal to a receiver in your car, which unlocks the doors. Thieves can use technology to hack those signals and trick the car into thinking the key fob is close by, allowing them to unlock and start the car. It’s known as a “relay attack.”

That’s why you should not keep your key fobs near the front door or a window. It’s better to keep them as far away from your driveway or garage as possible. You can also purchase a bag or pouch that blocks radio signals when storing keys at home.

Invest in a tracking device

Installing a tracking system might be one of the best ways to deter auto thefts, but can also help law enforcement if your car is stolen. A GPS tracking device will emit a signal to the owner, or monitoring service, and may be able to locate the vehicle from a distance.

O’Hara recommends against using an Apple AirTag, a small and popular tracking device that uses Bluetooth to locate items, in your car: “They’re actually easily identified,” she says, adding that thieves find them and then “just throw them out the window.”

Several insurers, such as Aviva Canada, Intact, TD Insurance and Desjardins, offer 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.

What to do if your car is stolen

If you’re in a position where you’re being intimidated or threatened by a thief attempting to steal your car, comply with their demands and put your own safety first.

My car was stolen - what’s next?

The next step is to call the police as soon as possible to file a report. Tell police about any personal items in the car that need to be replaced or changed urgently, such as house keys or a garage door opener. Drivers should also have their vehicle’s VIN number and license plate number recorded, and notify police about any dents, marks or modifications that might help identify your car.

After that, get in contact with your insurer and provide the same details to them. If you also have security footage or a vehicle tracker that could help with the recovery or valuation of your car, it’s helpful to provide that to both police and your insurer.

With reports from Clare O’Hara and Salmaan Farooqui

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