Car thefts have reached crisis levels across Canada. How did we get here?

A car is now stolen every six minutes in Canada, and organized crime rings are largely to blame
Man stealing a car
Car thief in action late at night, wearing a black mask on his head

In the last two years, the country’s car-theft rates graduated from a simmering problem to a full-blown crisis. In 2022 alone, the number of stolen cars nearly doubled in Ontario and Quebec and rose by a third in Alberta and 20 per cent in Atlantic Canada. The total annual financial damage? A billion dollars in losses. Life has been especially cruel to owners of Honda CR-Vs, a model that now holds the dubious honour of being the country’s most commonly stolen vehicle.

We can’t simply boil down this stealing spree to Canadians mindlessly leaving their passenger doors unlocked at night, or even the widespread car-manufacturing shortage set off by the pandemic. Michael Rothe, president and CEO of the Canadian Finance and Leasing Association, says a large majority of thefts are actually being orchestrated by organized crime rings, who use the profits to finance illegal activities like drug and gun trafficking and human smuggling. Canada is quickly becoming known as a “donor country” for vehicles because, according to Rothe, we make getting away with it easy. Here, Rothe explains how this crisis reached its current crescendo and how Canadians (and their cars) can avoid becoming unwitting targets.

Earlier this year, your organization released a report that said a car is now stolen every six minutes in Canada. Auto thefts were bad at the outset of the pandemic and they’ve only gotten worse. How did we get here?

What we’re seeing now is due to a couple of factors. In the early 2000s, car manufacturers were consistently outfitting their vehicles with anti-theft devices, and engine immobilizers were mandated by the federal government. Police were taking car thefts seriously, too. A number of provinces had dedicated auto-theft teams, so we saw a precipitous decline in the amount of cars stolen. Then, basically, everyone sat back and had their “mission accomplished” moment and the teams were dissolved. So criminals saw another opportunity and theft rates started going back up.

During the pandemic, there were also constraints on supply coming out of the auto-manufacturing sector and, at the same time, fewer people were taking public transportation. There was a real increase in demand for vehicles. On top of that, criminals were stealing catalytic converters for the high-value metals they contain. From 2015 to now, we’ve seen a 300 per cent surge in vehicle theft in the Greater Toronto Area alone. In the eyes of organized crime groups, Canada in general became very much a high-reward, low-risk environment, particularly compared to the United States.

Are there other reasons that it’s uniquely easy to steal a car in Canada? Is it just the lack of enforcement?

I do think it’s an enforcement issue. Since I’ve been working on this file, I’ve gotten much more engagement on this problem from U.S. Homeland Security than the Canada Border Services Agency. What that means is: our borders are more porous. We’ve seen containers with stolen vehicles going out to Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. When we compare ourselves to the U.S., on a per capita basis, the rates of car thefts are relatively the same. But when you look at certain vehicle types, manufacturers have reported losses here that are 10 times higher here in the U.S. Canada has become a known donor country for stolen vehicles.

And these fraudsters are then selling the cars in other countries to pay for illegal activities, like buying guns? That kind of thing?

Absolutely. I personally worked on a project that targeted members of the Hells Angels who were working in Ontario in the automotive sector. They were buying dealerships and using them to launder money and facilitate other crimes.

Is there a pattern to how these groups operate? I realize the process is probably a bit different every time, but…

Ancillary crimes like joy rides or smash-and-grabs usually don’t involve organized crime. Where you see these groups getting involved is in re-VINing—which is when criminals change the vehicle identification number and sell the car (or its parts). Other times, they target nicer neighbourhoods and identify high-value vehicles. The owner replaces it, and the criminals steal it again. I’ve heard stories of multiple thefts from the same owner. From what I’ve seen, the mafia or the Hells Angels or whoever are not doing the stealing themselves. They hire lower-level criminals to do that.

What else are you seeing?

Carjackings get a lot of headlines—they’re violent and scary, and someone tries to steal your car while you’re in it. Then there are your standard crimes of opportunity, like people leaving their vehicles running and unattended. This includes Uber and Uber Eats drivers. They leave the car to quickly drop off a package and their vehicle goes missing. The number of people who do this—it still surprises me.

Everything’s computerized now, so that’s allowed some of the more enterprising criminals to enter data ports and override anti-theft protections. Another new trend targets cars with push-button starts. Some criminals will sit at the end of your driveway and intercept the radio signal from your fob, program their own key with it and steal the car. It’s called a “relay attack,” and it can happen in a matter of seconds.

So in an effort to make vehicles safer—with all these digital advancements—we’ve actually accidentally made them easier to steal? Oops.

Yeah. It’s always one step forward, two steps back. I represent the financing companies, but we’re working with manufacturing, law enforcement and all levels of government on this. There’s no silver-bullet solution to this issue.

There also needs to be a concerted effort toward public education, right? The average Canadian can’t do a lot about organized crime, but they can avoid leaving their CR-V idling in the driveway.

There’s a lot you can do to make yourself a less-likely target. Don’t leave your car unattended and unlocked. If you have a garage, use it. I often think about that old adage: you don’t have to have an impregnable fence, just a slightly higher one than your neighbour.

Canadians should also be mindful of which vehicles they’re driving. Is your car on the top 10 most-stolen list? If so, you should be taking additional measures to protect yourself. In fact, insurance companies now are putting higher premiums on high-theft vehicles if owners aren’t taking steps to make them harder to steal.

Can you give me some examples of effective theft-proofing?

If you own a push-start vehicle, a very simple tip is to buy a Faraday bag. They’re roughly $20 on Amazon and block wireless signals from entering or leaving your car, which prevents hacking. You could put a club on your steering wheel, but it’s not really the deterrent people think it is. Many times, thieves will just saw it off.

You can also go a bit higher-end and pay thousands of dollars to have secondary ignition installed in your car, so it’s not just started by your primary key. I’ve also spoken with a few companies that are developing biometric ignition methods, which are linked to your respiration or heart rate. If your car is in the process of being stolen, the mechanism would identify a different heart rhythm and either turn the car off immediately or make the vehicle unable to start after a shut-off. There’s a range of options, whether you’re driving a 20-year-old Honda Civic or a high-value, high-powered car.

Going forward, what’s the plan of attack at the institutional level?

In Ontario, for example, we just saw a $52 million commitment to bring back not only those specialized auto-theft teams, but special prosecutors to take ownership over the issue. The teams get integrated into policing intelligence units—they’re not just working in a vacuum—so they get how organized crime plays into these thefts.

We’ve seen a number of high-profile announcements recently about police busting rings in Windsor and Toronto, and in Hamilton this past spring. I was recently at a summit in Peel Region, where all 10 GTA police chiefs were in attendance, specifically committing to investigate this issue. In a matter of months, they made a number of high-level busts. So we’ve seen an improvement already.

Well, it often takes a crisis for people to act. Do you think that people don’t take auto theft as seriously as other crimes because it’s equated to a monetary or property loss? In other words, people think, this is a belonging that can easily be replaced, rather than, I had my car stolen and now I can’t go to work or live my life in the way I used to.

It’s a huge inconvenience beyond having to report the theft. If your vehicle is stolen now, in some cases, getting a new one could take weeks or, sometimes, months—especially if you have a high-value car. People just don’t think this could happen to them; they think it’s something that happens to other people’s cars. And if it does, they’re like, Well, I have insurance. Well, yes, but it’s going to affect your premiums. Now that Canada is a known donor country, it’s also going to become a country with much higher insurance premiums—for everyone. Those losses need to be covered.

I will also say: I’ve been dealing with organized crime for most of my career. I don’t think people really understand how insidious it is. The money laundering, the drugs, the guns—all of these societal ills are symptoms of the disease of organized crime. Where are these groups getting a lot of their money?

The cars.

Yes. I’m not trying to be hysterical or alarmist—we’re a very safe country in many ways. But freedom isn’t free. Solving the car theft problem will actually help solve a lot of other issues, too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.