International crime rings are “targeting” Canada and orchestrating auto thefts across the country, including in Toronto, officials have told Global News.
In 2022, auto thefts overtook break-and-enters as the second most prevalent crime in the city, jumping up to 9,439 incidents from 6,518 in 2021, according to police data. That’s a 44.8 per cent increase.
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Despite multiple police operations resulting in hundreds of cars retrieved and dozens of arrests, thefts have persisted in the city since they have been organized abroad, Global News was told.
Toronto city councillor Mike Colle represents a midtown ward in the city where he said residents have been increasingly worried about thefts, and wheel locks that were once popular in the 1970s have made a return in a hope to deter thieves.
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Wanting to take action, Colle set in motion the creation of a police task force to investigate thefts, but he said the real problem lies in how easy it is for cars to be exported out of the country, netting huge profits for thieves.
“(This goes) way beyond Toronto’s borders,” he said.
There has also been a rise in carjackings in Toronto. According to police, 229 carjackings were reported in 2022, up from 102 in 2021. Earlier in 2022, Toronto Maple Leafs player Mitch Marner himself was a victim of a carjacking.
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Bryan Gast is a VP with Équité Association, a non-profit that helps insurers fight fraud, which has been a major player investigating car thefts in Canada. Gast told Global News that the situation of car thefts continues to get worse in the country, with most of them happening in Ontario due to its high population and quantity of quality cars, followed by Quebec, then Alberta.
“We’re getting to a point now where globally we’re a source country for stolen vehicles,” he said.
“Other countries are targeting Canadian vehicles to steal and export.”
Gast explained that international criminal groups send lists of vehicles to be stolen in Canada to hire thieves. The vehicles are then smuggled out of the country and sold in places such as West Africa and Europe.
He said a vehicle that typically can be sold for $100,000 in Canada can net up to $250,000 in West Africa. The money may then be used to fund more organized crime or even terrorism, according to Interpol.
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Given high demand and supply chain constraints, vehicles have become a big money-making machine, according to Gast, and thieves have taken advantage of recent free on board (FOB) technology that has enabled quick and easy steals.
Enforcement of found vehicles abroad is lax as well, Gast said, making thieves brazen in their actions. Cars have been located abroad still with Ontario license plates, which has come to be a status symbol in some countries, Gast said.
A quick search of Jiji, an online marketplace in Nigeria similar to Canada’s Kijiji, resulted in finding a post for a Ford Focus with an Ontario license plate still on it.
Gast said that there is a hierarchy in criminal organizations and the ones doing the stealing are not the masterminds behind the operation.
“These are organized crime groups,” Gast said, pointing to the coordination used to get cars from lots to out of the country.
“These networks are well connected.”
While Equité is working with local and federal law enforcement to find the cars before they are exported, Gast said that the sheer volume of vehicles leaving the ports makes the task difficult, and the thieves have been creative, finding workarounds to try to stop them.
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CBSA said in a statement that it has border officers at the docks to intercept and detain stolen vehicles.
“Border officers in local export units have the authority to conduct daily audits of export declarations (primary examination) and select containers of interest for secondary examination at docks or warehouses,” the statement read.
“As with all modes of transportation, they use a risk management approach, security intelligence, state-of-the-art detection technologies, and they look for deceptive indicators to determine whether further examination, such as container unloading is required.”
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Colle, though, said finding stolen cars at ports is like finding a needle in a haystack and, for one, is not satisfied with the level of cooperation between the different jurisdictions. He feels more can be done. Gast agrees.
“It’s critical for the feds and (Ontario) to take this seriously,” Colle said. “But up until now, they have just been disinterested.”
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