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It happened on a Monday night last week, a little before 8 p.m., in the parking lot of a suburban Toronto movie theatre. Three people, two with guns and one with a knife, carjacked a black Range Rover from a man and woman in their 20s. The victims handed over the keys and were not injured.

Soon after, it emerged it was Toronto Maple Leaf Mitch Marner’s Range Rover.

That cast a spotlight of fame on a crime that, though rare, is far less so than it used to be. Police say that as of mid-May there had been 60 carjackings in the city. That’s already one more than in all of 2021.

Carjackings may be rare in Canada, but run-of-the-mill car theft is remarkably common. In the Greater Toronto Area, there’s been a surge in this crime. According to Toronto Police data, while major crimes such as shootings, assaults and robberies are holding roughly steady compared with recent years, auto theft has shot up. Way up. As of May 16, there had been 3,184 auto thefts – a jump of 62 per cent from the same period last year.

That puts Toronto on pace for around 8,500 car thefts this year. In a city of around 1.1 million households, that’s one car theft for every 129 households. And given that many do not own a car, it suggests that the odds of a family having a car stolen in the city, this year, is around one in 100.

In many cases, stolen vehicles end up in shipping containers, to be sold overseas. The luxury Range Rover is among the most targeted vehicles. Other often-stolen brands and models include the Lexus RX, Honda CR-Vs and Civics, and various BMWs.

HelloSafe, an insurance comparison website, estimated a cross-Canada annual cost to the insurance industry of $542-million.

Cars are generally stolen from a home’s driveway during the night. One method is what’s called a relay attack. This depends on a car key fob sitting near the front door of a home. Thieves will use equipment to propel the signal from that fob to unlock the car.

Many thefts don’t depend on access to a legit key, according to a CBC investigation in March. Thieves will use a lock pick to get into a car, and then tap into the on-board diagnostics port. Then, using equipment available online, a new key fob can be quickly be programmed to start the vehicle.

Last December, when car thefts in Toronto were already up 12 per cent from the year before, city council called on police to do more. Police thereafter started work to establish a central unit to focus on car thefts, with a particular eye on organized crime.

According to a Toronto Star investigation, about 700 stolen vehicles in shipping containers were intercepted at the Port of Montreal and Port of Halifax in 2021. But that’s only a fraction of the cars stolen each year in Canada. Cars are relatively easy to steal, and not all that hard to quietly ship overseas.

It a low-risk, high-reward business, which is why it’s booming.

There are some basic precautions that drivers can take, such as keeping key fobs in a special pouch while at home, to protect its signal from a relay attack, or capping the on-board diagnostics port with a lock that costs a few hundred dollars. (Why aren’t these included with every new car?) Other emerging options to prevent theft include a two-factor authentication system, as is used by many websites and apps, where a second confirmation of identify is sought when logging in.

The recent rise in car thefts is an unhappy reversal of a long-term trend.

In the early 2000s, the rate of car thefts in Canada was more than double current levels. And then this type of crime, alongside that of other property crimes, fell off sharply until the early 2010s. On the bright side, while thieves have cracked the technology of many new cars, older cars were even easier to steal.

Given how common car thefts are, it’s remarkable that auto makers and the insurance industry aren’t doing more. Then again, they don’t bear the ultimate costs of a car that disappears and must be replaced.

Part of the solution to this rising problem may involve pushing auto makers to act – by making their computers-on-wheels harder to hack.

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