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What you need to know about Ottawa's plan to pump the brakes on auto theft

The federal government has announced a range of measures meant to curb rising auto thefts.

It comes after a national summit to address what government and police describe as a growing international concern. Following that summit, convened by Ottawa, it earmarked money toward potential solutions in last month's federal budget.

Here's what you need to know about how Ottawa is hoping to stop thieves in their tracks.

How big of a problem has auto theft become?

An analysis of police data from across the country found more than 70,000 cars were stolen in 2023, according to a report prepared by insurance fraud prevention group Équité Association for the federal government's February summit.

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It found that between 2021 and 2023, the number of stolen vehicles surged 48 per cent in Ontario, 58 per cent in Quebec and 34 per cent in Atlantic Canada.

Meanwhile, the Insurance Bureau of Canada paid out a record of around $1.5 billion in claims last year. Insurers have said the majority of vehicles are being stolen from Ontario and Quebec and exported through the Port of Montreal.

Police say while as many as one-third of stolen vehicles are being resold within Canada, a majority are ferried out of the country by organized crime rings, often in containers bound for Africa and the Middle East.

What are police doing?

Between mid-December and the end of March, an Ontario Provincial Police-led operation at the Port of Montreal inspected about 400 shipping containers and found nearly 600 stolen vehicles — most of them from the Toronto area.

The port has said it works closely with police and border services, but port officials can only open containers to save someone’s life or prevent environmental damage. More than 800 officers from a range of agencies have access cards to enter the port and, if they have a warrant, can open containers.

However, in customs-controlled areas of the port, only border officers can open containers without a warrant.

In March, Toronto police announced the recovery of 48 stolen vehicles and the arrests of seven people as it said its officers have received training on preventing vehicle theft.

Are car companies making changes too?

Automakers have detailed their efforts to improve theft recovery technology. Honda Canada, for instance, says it has systems to deter vehicle thefts such as smart ignition keys with a built-in transponder that must match the vehicle's computer to start the engine. It also offers a locator system strong enough to penetrate metal shipping containers.

But the automaker says there remains a "cat-and-mouse game" affecting all vehicle brands and models, as thieves constantly find new ways to get around deterrents. Diagnostic tools, software licences and other equipment are easily accessible online, while YouTube tutorials often fill knowledge gaps for thieves.

Breaking into a vehicle and reprogramming a key fob is the most common method of stealing, says the Équité Association.

It says Honda Canada's CR-V is among the most frequently stolen models, along with others such as the Dodge RAM 1500 and Ford F150.

What happened after the federal summit?

February's summit brought together federal and provincial governments, municipalities, law enforcement agencies and private-sector partners to discuss ways to tackle the issue.

In the federal budget tabled two months later, the Liberals earmarked $28 million to help prevent cars from being shipped abroad and proposed several new Criminal Code offences specific to auto thefts.

That included new charges for the use of violence while stealing a vehicle and for links to organized crime, as well as laundering money for the benefit of a criminal organization.

Ottawa also proposed making it illegal to own or sell the electronic and digital devices police say are being commonly used to steal cars.

What is the government doing now?

A more detailed national strategy was unveiled on Monday that captured several of the previously announced measures. The plan emphasizes ramped-up intelligence sharing among police forces and a Public Safety Canada-led working group involving all levels of government.

It also makes good on last month's budget commitment to give the CBSA more capacity to detect and search containers. The new strategy calls for shipment container inspections to expand through deployment of scanning and detection technology beyond ports in places like rail yards.

It suggests the RCMP will be asked to teach courses on auto theft techniques at the Canadian Police College, while the Mounties, CBSA and local police forces will be required to launch a “GPS tracking protocol” that victims and law enforcement can use to help find missing vehicles.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada praised the Liberals’ new plan, saying it captures most of the changes it sought, but said speedy implementation is now key.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2024.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press