Less than three weeks after Pamela Rice took delivery of her 2022 Toyota Highlander Platinum SUV in October, it was stolen from her Toronto driveway. It wasn’t the first time, either. Her last Toyota, a 2019 Highlander, was also stolen in 2020.
In that case, she got it back within a week, and no one was charged. In this latest incident, an app on her phone tracked the vehicle to Brampton, Ont.
After she alerted police, they recovered her SUV along with seven other Highlanders, several Lexus SUVs and other cars in numerous shipping containers. Peel police told her the vehicles were going to be shipped overseas. Her car was badly damaged. After extensive repairs at the dealer, she finally got it back in late January, 2023.
Ms. Rice is one of a growing number of Canadians who’ve experienced auto theft firsthand. In 2021, the latest year for which numbers are available, there were 83,288 vehicle thefts, according to Statistics Canada. In 2020, there were 78,198. Data for 2022 won’t be available until July, 2023.
The thefts resulted in 5,072 charges in 2021, down from 5,532 charges in 2020, despite the growing scope of the problem.
“It is getting worse because organized crime groups are finding it’s very lucrative [to steal cars],” said Bryan Gast, vice-president of investigative services at Équité Association, a not-for-profit association of insurance companies working to detect and prevent insurance fraud. “The risk-reward is in their favour. If they get caught, the sentencing isn’t significant.”
Auto thefts fall under property crime, which has lighter penalties compared with drug trafficking, Mr. Gast explained.
The spike in auto thefts started after the pandemic began. A drop in new vehicle production coupled with shortages of key supplies like computer chips meant higher prices for new and used cars, giving criminals a greater incentive to steal.
Ontario and Quebec are being hit the hardest, Mr. Gast says. That’s because of Ontario’s large concentration of high-value vehicles and Montreal’s port location.
In Brampton, Mayor Patrick Brown recently urged Ottawa to recall the most stolen vehicles, putting the onus on automakers to make cars with keyless locks and keyless ignitions more difficult to steal, saying the situation has reached a “crisis” point in Canada. Mr. Brown’s office released statistics showing that since 2019, thefts have risen 97 per cent in Peel Region (where Brampton is located), 80 per cent in Toronto, 134 per cent in York Region and 120 per cent in Montreal.
Just a few weeks before Mr. Brown held his news conference, a stolen Audi was driven through a mall in the neighbouring city of Vaughan, Ont.
“We can’t accept auto theft as a way of life in Canada’s big cities,” the mayor said. “Criminal organizations have used new technology to make it easier than ever to steal a car.”
Audrey Champoux, a spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, told The Globe and Mail in a statement that the minister met with Mr. Brown earlier this month and “has assured him that we will continue to work with all our agencies to crack down on serious crimes, like auto left.” She noted that Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and York Regional Police had recently “recovered 64 vehicles [worth $3.5-million], which had been stolen in the GTA and illegally shipped to Malta.”
Nadine Ramadan, a spokeswoman for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, said the department only has authority to recall vehicles under the Motor Vehicle Safety Act if there is an immediate threat to road users. She said the minister recently visited CBSA facilities in the Greater Toronto Area and Montreal “to see firsthand the actions they are taking to combat car theft.” He will also be meeting with automakers to discuss the issue.
Criminals are using sophisticated, high-tech tools to steal vehicles, especially newer vehicles with push-button starts. Reprogramming key fobs and “relay attacks” are the most common ways. In the first instance, criminals use the on-board diagnostic port to reprogram the fob. The port is located under the steering wheel; it’s intended for mechanics to diagnose a problem with a vehicle. But criminals have acquired tools and electronics that plug into that same port, bypassing security systems, to reprogram the fob and start the car.
With a relay attack, a criminal stands outside a person’s home and uses an antenna-like device to extend the range of the radio frequency between the key fob and the vehicle to trick the vehicle into thinking the fob is closer than it actually is.
In a bid to reduce relay attacks, Brampton City Council recently approved a program to distribute free Faraday bags to residents in select neighbourhoods. Faraday bags, which block wireless signals, are small pouches that can be used for storing key fobs to prevent criminals from intercepting the signal. Mr. Brown called the Faraday bags a “Band-Aid solution.” He said, “We need the industry to adjust.”
David Adams, president of Global Automakers of Canada, whose group represents leading automakers from Europe, Japan and South Korea in Canada, said the problem of theft is not lost on manufacturers. “They’re always looking at ways to make their theft-deterrent systems more robust. It’s an ongoing challenge for manufacturers to keep ahead of the game because the thieves are very sophisticated.”
He said dealers and manufacturers are in the business of satisfying customers and don’t want to see their cars being stolen. “The last thing you want is somebody to have their vehicle stolen and then be put in the situation where they’re waiting an inordinate amount of time for a new vehicle. Nobody wants that,” Mr. Adams said.
Michael Bouliane, manager of corporate communications at Toyota Canada, echoed the sentiment. “We are deeply concerned about the impact of theft on our Canadian customers and we take the issue very seriously. ... Unfortunately, when it comes to the industry-wide issue of auto theft, higher demand for certain vehicles in overseas markets leads to increased targeting of these vehicles by thieves in Canada.”
The Toyota Highlander is the fifth most stolen vehicle in Canada, according to the Équité Association’s latest top 10 list. Ahead of the Highlander in order are the Honda CR-V, Lexus RX, Ford F-150 and Honda Civic. Also making the list are the Ram 1500, Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra, Honda Accord, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota RAV4.
Ms. Rice said she loves her Toyota Highlander and the brand, but said if this one gets stolen, it will be her last.
Auto theft “is not a victimless crime; this is organized crime,” Mr. Gast said. Stolen cars are not just resold by national and international criminal networks to generate money. They are also used in crimes such as drug trafficking, arms dealing, human smuggling and international terrorism, Mr. Gast said, citing the findings of Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization.
Organized crime groups are using these vehicles like “commodity-based or trade-based money laundering,” Mr. Gast said. “Other than paying to steal the vehicle and the shipping cost to get it out of the country, they’re making huge amounts of money.”
Besides driving up insurance premiums for consumers, vehicle theft was a $700-million problem for Canadian insurance companies in 2021, according to Mr. Gast.
In Ontario alone, theft claims increased by 31 per cent to 15,825 in 2021 from 12,073 in 2020, while theft claim values increased 59 per cent to $405-million from $254-million, according to an analysis by the Insurance Bureau of Canada, based on industry data.
“Criminal activity and fraud are one of many factors that impact overall claims costs for Ontario auto insurance consumers. However, insurers do not penalize individual drivers who are traumatized by car jackings or any other form of fraud. The cost for these criminal activities is borne by every auto insurance customer in Ontario,” wrote Brett Weltman, manager of media relations at the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
Average auto insurance premiums in Ontario increased by 14 per cent between 2017 and 2021 to $1,642, according to the province’s Auditor-General in her annual report.
For Ms. Rice, protecting her SUV is now a multilayered approach. She has installed a security camera at home, uses the Club steering wheel lock and wheel jams, and keeps her key fob in a metal container at the back of her home. She chose not to install an anti-theft device, such as a hidden “kill switch” that prevents thieves from starting the vehicle, because she was warned it could void her warranty.
“The kill switch works, but I guarantee if you put a kill switch in your car and your car gets towed to the dealer with a computer problem, the dealer is going to blame this device,” warned Lou Trottier, Globe Drive contributor and owner-operator of All About Imports in Mississauga. “While your car is under warranty, it’s a risk any time you’re tampering with the electrical system on your car.”
Mr. Trottier said it takes a thief an average of seven minutes to get into your vehicle to reprogram a dummy key. “I don’t believe there is anything that can stop them. Anyone who wants a car bad enough is going to get it. It is simply a quest to slow them down.”
Mr. Trottier also believes car theft deterrents have to come from manufacturers to be really effective at stopping thefts. “You should not be able to access key information through a tool you can buy on the internet. The manufacturer has to change the way this information is being disseminated and protected in a different way. The manufacturer has to build some sort of kill switch.”