In addition to car jackings and illegal technology that replicates a vehicle owner’s key fob, police say organized crime groups have adopted a new tactic that has helped take car thefts across Canada to crisis levels: inside jobs.
Police are increasingly seeing organized crime groups pressure debtors and other people they have leverage over to report that their car has been stolen when, in fact, they have voluntarily handed it over to thieves.
“They target vulnerable people. So, somebody who maybe owes money to an organized crime group is forced to go and lease a high-end vehicle and then report it stolen – when in fact they’re giving it up,” Ontario Provincial Police Detective Inspector Scott Wade, program commander of the OPP’s Organized Crime Towing and Auto-Theft Team, said in an interview Tuesday.
The result is an insurance claim for a vehicle that was never really stolen – creating a cascade of issues, including fraudulent insurance claims and higher rates for non-criminal drivers, Det. Insp. Wade said.
The investigator’s description of the scheme comes in the wake of a major police crackdown announced last week in the border town of Windsor, Ont., where police recovered more than 130 stolen vehicles, the majority of which were destined for export overseas. The police operation, which was a joint-project between the Windsor Police Service and the OPP, led to criminal charges against 23 people – more than half of whom were residents of Windsor.
Although Det. Insp. Wade said he could not specify whether that particular tactic figured into the Windsor police operation, he said it poses just as much of a problem for police – particularly when it comes to victims.
“So, I mean, are they victims? Partially. They’re victims by, potentially, their vulnerability to the organized crime group – that does happen. It also happens with people who are vulnerable because of immigration status,” he said.
It is reminiscent of the mass fraud and corruption identified within the Ontario towing industry, which a 2020 Globe and Mail investigation revealed is rife with violence and forged collision reports for insurance fraud. Det. Insp. Wade said there is a definite link between the car thefts and the towing industry, which is why his specialized unit has been tasked with cracking down on both.
“We do find a lot of cases where we’re looking at a towing company for some violence that they’re involved in, and then we also find evidence of stolen vehicles,” Det. Insp. Wade said.
But while some of the thefts involve falsified reports, he said the large majority of victims are still unsuspecting members of the public.
Between 2014 and 2021, the OPP says there was a 72 per cent increase in vehicle thefts across the province. In 2022, they saw another 14 per cent jump. And after just the first six months of this year, they were already closing in on last year’s total.
It’s a trend that cost insurers more than $1-billion last year alone, according to Équité Association, a not-for-profit organization that assists in insurance fraud and crime investigations.
“While vehicle theft is not new, the level of violence, intimidation and incidents involving firearms used to steal vehicles represents a new and evolving serious threat,” OPP Deputy Commissioner Marty Kearns said at a press conference in Windsor last week to announce the results of the joint-operation, which was dubbed Project Fairfield.
The investigation began in April, 2022, when Windsor police officers noticed a spike in reports of stolen vehicles – and a sophistication to the crimes.
“This criminal network was not just targeting the city of Windsor, but other jurisdictions as well,” Windsor Police Chief Jason Bellaire said at the press conference. “Across Ontario, vehicles are being stolen at unprecedented rates.”
OPP Inspector Andy Bradford, who oversaw the investigation, said that while the individuals charged were not affiliated with a specific gang or group, they were organized in nature. Among those charged were people with experience in the used-car industry, as well as international and domestic shipping.
The OPP did not provide specific details about the thefts in Project Fairfield, saying only that the vehicles were stolen from both commercial locations and residential driveways.
Roughly 70 per cent of the vehicles were recovered from the Windsor-Essex County area. The other 30 per cent were from across the GTA.
Roughly 40 per cent of the cars recovered had been “re-vinned” which means their Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) had been altered.
“By modifying the VINs of these vehicles, the crime group was able to fraud register the vehicles and resell them for criminal profit,” OPP Insp. Bradford explained. These can then be purchased by unsuspecting victims, who think they got a good deal on a vehicle that is actually stolen.
The other 60 per cent of the vehicles were destined to be shipped and sold overseas, he said, including to United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
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.
“The insurance companies are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year in these vehicles, and it’s just passed on to citizens,” Det. Insp. Wade said.