Exploring the involvement
of organized crime in motor vehicle theft
The extent of vehicle theft in Canada
Defining organized vehicle theft
Measuring stolen vehicle recoveries - an indication of the
prevalence of organized vehicle theft
Characteristics of recovered and not recovered vehicle theft
Defining a criminal organization for future data collection
Youth involvement in organized vehicle theft
Sophistication of organized crime and vehicle theft
Turning stolen vehicles into profit
Measures to combat organized vehicle theft
While thrill-seeking remains a major motive for motor vehicle theft in
Canada, the number of vehicles stolen for profit by organized groups is
a serious concern among auto theft experts. In 2000, auto theft was identified
as an emerging priority under the National Agenda to Combat Organized
Crime. Vehicle theft is a relatively low-risk, high-profit activity that
is often used as a means of raising funds for criminal organizations to
pursue various additional criminal activities1.
Data on vehicle thefts are collected by Statistics Canada's Uniform Crime
Reporting (UCR) Survey directly from Canadian police services. These data
do not include any direct indication of whether or not a vehicle theft
was committed by organized crime. However, many police services are able
to provide information on the number of stolen vehicles recovered or not
recovered. The data on vehicles "not recovered" are used in
this report as a proxy indicator of the prevalence of vehicle theft perpetrated
by organized groups (see box entitled ‘Measuring
stolen vehicle recoveries’).
The first section of this report examines the extent of, and trends in,
overall vehicle theft in Canada. The second section examines the involvement
of organized crime in vehicle theft, where it is concentrated, who is
involved, as well as what happens to the vehicles once they are stolen.
It should be noted that throughout this report the terms organized vehicle
theft, theft by organized groups, theft by organized crime and thefts
by vehicle theft rings are used to describe the same activity, as experts
in this field tend to use these expressions interchangeably.
Vehicle thefts declining
and Vancouver continue to report highest rates
Clearance rate stable in recent years
continue to be the most commonly stolen type of vehicle
In 2002, over 161,000 vehicles were stolen in Canada, or about 440 vehicle
thefts each day. The motor vehicle theft rate increased steadily from
1984 to 1996, including double-digit increases from 1989 to 1991 and in
1996. Since 1996, rates have generally declined, including a 5% drop in
2002 (Table 1, Figure 1). Motor vehicle
theft rates in recent years have remained higher than those seen in the
1970s and 1980s.
Motor Vehicle Theft in Canada, 1977 to 2002
Source: Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice
Statistics, Statistics Canada, and Annual Demographic Statistics, 2002 report, catalogue no. 91-213-XIB.
The decline in 2002 was led by a 13% drop in Saskatchewan and 11% drops
in Quebec and Prince Edward Island. British Columbia was the only province
to report a large increase (+7%) in its vehicle theft rate in 2002 (Table
As for most crimes, motor vehicle theft rates tend to be lower in the
East than in the West. Manitoba has reported the highest rate of vehicle
thefts in nine of the past ten years while the lowest rate has been reported
by Newfoundland and Labrador for over 20 years (Figure 2).
Motor Vehicle Theft Rates by Province and Territory, 2002
Source: Uniform Crime Reporting Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice
Statistics, Statistics Canada.
Vehicle theft tends to be concentrated in major urban areas. In 2002,
the overall rate of motor vehicle theft in census metropolitan areas (CMAs)2 was 606 incidents per 100,000 population, compared to 364 in non-CMA areas.
In 2002, rates among all 25 CMAs ranged from 147 incidents per 100,000
population in St. John’s to 1,424 in Regina (Table
3). Regina, Winnipeg and Vancouver have reported the highest vehicle
theft rates in the country each year since 1995. Despite being the CMAs
with the highest vehicle theft rates, both Regina and Winnipeg reported
substantial declines in 2002 (-27% and -13% respectively).
Over the past decade motor vehicle theft rates have doubled in London,
nearly tripled in Regina, and almost quadrupled in Winnipeg, resulting
in a large increase in vehicle theft rates in Manitoba and Saskatchewan
in particular. In contrast, vehicle theft rates in Québec, Thunder
Bay, Sudbury and Calgary have decreased by half since 1992. As a result,
the overall rate of motor vehicle thefts in 2002 (514) was at nearly the
same level as in 1992 (517).
Motor vehicle theft is a crime characterized by relatively low clearance
rates. In 2002, 12% of all vehicle thefts in Canada were “solved”
by police, compared to the overall clearance rate of 20% for property
crimes. The clearance rate for vehicle thefts has been relatively steady
for the last seven years (Table 1).
Significant declines in the clearance rate between 1989 and 1996 coincided
with a period of increasing motor vehicle theft rates.
In 2002, 8% of vehicle thefts resulted in police laying a charge, and
4% were cleared “otherwise”. An incident is cleared “otherwise”
when the police have identified at least one accused and there is sufficient
evidence to lay a charge in connection with the incident, but the accused
is processed by other means. This could occur for a number of reasons:
the police may have used discretion and decided not to lay a charge, the
complainant did not want police to lay a charge or the accused was involved
in other incidents.
Provincially, clearance rates ranged from 30% in Newfoundland and Labrador
to 5% in British Columbia (Table 4).
Cars continued to be the most commonly stolen type of vehicle in 2002,
accounting for 59% of all vehicle thefts. However trucks, including minivans
and sport utility vehicles, now account for one-third of vehicles stolen.
The rate of trucks being stolen has increased 44% over the past decade,
compared to a 9% decrease in the rate of cars being stolen since 1992.
This illustrates the growing popularity of sport utility vehicles, mini-vans
and trucks on the road and as potential targets for theft.
The following definition of a criminal organization appears in section
467.1 of the Criminal Code:
“Criminal organization” means a group, however organized,
- is composed of 3 or more persons in or outside Canada; and
- has as one of its main purposes or main activities the facilitation
or commission of one or more serious offences that, if committed, would
likely result in the direct or indirect receipt of a material benefit,
including a financial benefit, by the group or by any of the persons
who constitute the group.
It does not include a group of persons that forms randomly for the immediate
commission of a single offence. Committing an offence means being a party
to it or counseling any person to be a party to it under sections 467.11
Some organized vehicle theft is perpetrated by established organized
crime groups, with the intent of using profits to fund further criminal
activity. A 1998 study by the RCMP suggested that organized crime groups
are involved in every aspect of the auto theft for export process, including
placing orders for specific makes/models/years, commissioning the thefts,
counterfeiting the identity of the cars and accompanying paperwork, transporting
the cars out of province, and arranging for their illegal export out of
In its Annual Report on Organized Crime in Canada, the Criminal
Intelligence Service Canada (CISC) listed vehicle theft as an activity
perpetrated by Aboriginal-based Organized Crime groups, Eastern European
Organized Crime groups, and street gangs4.
The Aboriginal-based Organized Crime groups are present in a number of
urban centres, particularly Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg. These groups
also operate to a lesser extent in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
The centre of the Eastern European Organized Crime groups is Southern
Ontario; however large urban centres in other provinces are also beginning
to report their presence5.
There are also vehicle theft rings. These rings specialize in the theft
and sale of stolen vehicles, either in whole or as parts, and are likely
not to be involved in other criminal activities that do not benefit or
relate to their auto theft activities. For these groups, profit is the
end goal. Vehicle theft rings can be as simple as a couple of people with
the common purpose of stealing and selling motor vehicles or their parts,
or as complex as a business organization with assigned roles and duties6.
Organized theft rings may operate locally and steal vehicles to be dismantled
in a secure building known as a “chop shop” and sold as parts.
However, some organized vehicle theft rings are also involved in both
inter-provincial and international exportation.
In general, vehicle theft rings are multi-layered, made up of brokers,
middlemen and thieves. Typically, brokers make arrangements with a middleman
to hire thieves. The thieves are often young people who are instructed
to steal vehicles and deliver them to a predetermined location. Some sources
also include the experts who are responsible for chopping (dismantling
for parts), re-Vinning (altering the Vehicle Identification Number to
disguise the vehicle), and exporting as additional layers7.
Members within each level tend to deal with other levels only as required
in order to complete their tasks8.
For instance, middlemen deal with thieves and brokers, but are unlikely
to interact with the choppers or exporters.
Measuring stolen vehicle recoveries
The number of stolen vehicles not recovered is one of the measures used
as a proxy indicator of the number of vehicles stolen for profit by organized
groups9. This is because
vehicles that are stolen for other purposes, such as thrill seeking or
transportation, tend to be subsequently located by police. As such, in
this report motor vehicles stolen for the purpose of thrill-seeking (sometimes
referred to as joy-riding), transportation, or to aid in the commission
of another crime are not considered to have been stolen as part of organized
Data on the number of motor vehicles stolen each year are available from
the aggregate version of the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Survey. However,
the only available data on the recovery status of stolen vehicles come
from the most recent version of the incident-based UCR Survey (UCR2.1).
Only 62 police services currently provide data to this version of the
survey. In order to increase coverage, major police services were approached
and asked to supply these data where possible.
While the non-recovery rate provides a proxy measure of the extent of
organized vehicle theft, it should be kept in mind, however, that it is
subject to the following limitations:
- It under-estimates organized vehicle theft by counting vehicles that
have been stripped and burnt as “recovered” when it is likely
that these vehicles were taken by organized theft rings for the sale
of parts10; and by counting
any stolen vehicles that are destined for export but stopped at the
border as “recovered”;
- It over-estimates organized vehicle theft by counting vehicles stolen
for thrill-seeking or fraudulent purposes that are well-hidden on private
property, submerged under water, or otherwise hidden, as "not recovered".
Available data from 22 large police services (accounting for
almost three-quarters of all police-reported vehicle thefts in Canada)
indicate that approximately one out of every five stolen vehicles was
not recovered in 2002 (Table 5). Therefore,
approximately one in five vehicle thefts may be linked to organized groups
or theft rings. This is a large increase over the early 1970s when approximately
2% of all stolen vehicles were not recovered11.
An even better measurement of organized vehicle crime in a given area
is to calculate the “rate” of stolen vehicles not recovered
per 100,000 population. While the highest rates of total vehicle thefts
are reported in the western provinces, most of these vehicles are later
recovered. Experts agree that while organized vehicle theft is beginning
to be seen in nearly all areas of the country, the largest problem continues
to be concentrated in the larger urban centres of Quebec and Ontario12.
In 2002, data from the 22 police services show that the highest rates
of stolen vehicles not recovered were found in Quebec and Ontario, as
well as the port city of Halifax (Table
5). Montréal reported the highest non-recovered rate (354 stolen
vehicles not recovered per 100,000 population), more than twice that of
the next highest force (Halifax at a rate of 151). As well, nearly half
of all vehicles stolen in the city of Montréal (44%) were not recovered.
The next highest rates of stolen vehicles not recovered were reported
by other forces in Quebec and Ontario: London (141), Ottawa (135), York
Region (118), Gatineau-Métro (117) and Toronto (97) (Figure 3).
Proportion of Stolen Vehicles Not Recovered, Select Police Services, 2002
Rate of Stolen Vehicles Not Recovered, Select Police Services, 2002
* Data from UCR 2.1 Survey, Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, Statistics
Source: Data supplied directly by Police Service.
There are generally lower rates of unrecovered vehicles and lower proportions
of stolen vehicles not recovered elsewhere in the country. Thrill-seeking
and transportation are the main motives for vehicle theft in other areas,
such as Calgary13 and Winnipeg14,
though they do also experience a small amount of theft for profit. The
lowest rates of vehicles not recovered were reported in St. John’s
(19), Victoria (31), Regina (40), Thunder Bay (41) and Windsor (45).
In 2002, thieves stole almost twice as many cars as trucks (including
vans and sport utility vehicles). Stolen trucks were less likely to be
located by police than were cars. Of all the trucks that were stolen in
2002, 19% were not recovered, compared to 14% of stolen cars. This suggests
that while cars are more likely than trucks to be a target of auto theft
in general, trucks are more likely to be a target of organized vehicle
Similarly, there appears to be a difference between recovered and not
recovered vehicles in the locations from which they are stolen. Of all
stolen vehicles, 35% were stolen from parking lots and 31% from streets.
Only 15% of vehicles stolen from parking lots and 10% of those stolen
from streets are not recovered. While there are fewer vehicles stolen
from homes (15%) and private property structures (7%), such as detached
garages and sheds, they are much more likely not to be recovered by police.
One-third of vehicles stolen from homes (34%) and nearly a quarter (23%)
stolen from private property structures are not recovered. This indicates
a higher degree of organized theft from homes and private property structures
than from parking lots and streets.
Car dealerships can be appealing targets for organized groups. Generally
these locations display a number of new vehicles located conveniently
close together in relatively unprotected parking lots. While car dealerships
account for only a small portion of all vehicle thefts in Canada (1%),
a large portion of vehicles (41%) that are stolen from these locations
are not recovered.
This selectivity in the location from which organized groups steal vehicles
may be directly related to types of vehicles being stolen from each of
these locations15. For instance,
the most desirable vehicles in the illicit market are high value vehicles
which tend to be protected by advanced anti-theft systems. To bypass these
systems it is necessary to have the vehicle’s keys, which are often
obtained by breaking and entering into a home or dealership and stealing
them before the car. Vehicles stolen from streets and parking lots generally
tend to be older models, or those not protected with sophisticated anti-theft
There has recently been an increased interest in studying organized crime
in Canada and abroad. The Criminal Code includes the above mentioned
definition of the term ‘criminal organization’ for use by
police services. However, for the purposes of data collection and statistical
analysis a more specific operational definition is required. The following
definition of ‘criminal organization’, which will be included
in the next version of the incident-based UCR survey (UCR2), has been
developed in consultation with numerous experts. It is currently undergoing
testing and may be subject to some modification.
A criminal organization consists of a static or fluid
group of (2 or more) individuals who communicate, co-operate, and conspire
within an ongoing collective or network; and has as one of its main purposes
or activities the facilitation or commission of offences undertaken or planned
to generate material benefits or financial gain.
If data collectors or coders are uncertain about whether a group answers
to the definition of Criminal Organization, the group should be included
if it can also be characterized by either or both of the following provisions:
involvement in a series, or variety of criminal activities, and/or the
potential for violence, and/or intimidation, and/or corruption to facilitate
its criminal activities.
Vehicle theft in general is a crime that is associated with young offenders,
more so than other offences. In 2002, 40% of persons charged with this
crime were between the ages of 12 and 1716.
This is higher than the proportion of youth charged with any other major
crime category. According to an Australian report, while most young people
cease their illegal behaviour before it develops into an entrenched pattern,
some continue on to become repeat offenders, and a further portion graduates
to stealing cars to supply the illicit market17.
A report by Transport Canada indicates that organized vehicle theft groups
recruit youths to steal cars specifically in order to protect the upper
levels of the theft ring18.
Some experts also indicate that organized groups involved in vehicle theft
rely on the justice system to be lenient with young offenders and will
assure them they have little to fear if they are apprehended19.
In most cases, the youths are only able to identify others involved in
the theft ring by nickname, which decreases the risk to other members
if the young thieves are apprehended.
Results of a recent Swedish study suggest that there is something about
motor vehicle theft in particular that makes it an ideal recruitment tool
for organized criminal groups20.
The study made use of data from the national register of persons convicted
of criminal offences in order to identify which first offences might indicate
a higher risk for a continued criminal career. These high-risk first offences
are referred to as strategic offences. The study found that motor vehicle
theft was the most readily identifiable strategic offence, followed by
non-vehicle thefts and robbery. In other words, those who are most at
risk of continuing along the criminal career path are those whose first
conviction is for motor vehicle theft.
In many cases the same methods are employed in organized vehicle thefts
as in non-organized vehicle thefts. However, because of their higher degree
of specialization and access to experts with various skill sets, groups
involved in organized vehicle theft have been known to employ more sophisticated
methods such as high quality document forgery and identity theft in order
to obtain financing and steal new vehicles directly from car dealerships21.
Similarly, rings have been known to forge ownership documentation in order
to export or resell a stolen vehicle as second-hand. Theft rings will
also lease cars from rental companies, and then export them to clients
Theft for the sale of vehicle parts
In order to be involved in overseas exportation, theft rings require
that a system exist in the destination country in order to receive and
sell the stolen vehicles as well as return the profit to the Canadian
ring. As a result, overseas exportation tends to be dominated by ethnically-based
groups that already have strong connections in their country of origin
and are therefore able to ensure that the requisite structure is in place23.
It is also possible, though less common, for groups domestic to Canada
to develop international connections and become involved in the international
trafficking of stolen vehicles.
Vehicles that are stolen for export overseas are often loaded into shipping
containers and accompanied by false documentation claiming the container
holds a different type of cargo. In some cases, the organized crime groups
may have a link to a port in the form of individuals in key positions
who are influential in the movement of commercial cargo off a vessel and
within the port environment24.
A report by Europol indicates that the market for second hand vehicles
at a cheap price always exists, particularly in countries which are not
as economically developed or do not manufacture vehicles themselves25.
As a result, vehicles stolen within Canada may be destined for a number
of locations. Stolen vehicles that are shipped out of Montréal
or Toronto may first arrive in the United States and from there travel
to Europe, South America or East Africa. Stolen vehicles that are shipped
out of the port of Halifax are likely to arrive eventually in Eastern
Europe. Stolen vehicles moved through the port of Vancouver often end
up in Asia. Recently, there has been evidence of vehicles stolen in both
Toronto and Montréal that have been shipped to Edmonton, and from
there through the United States and on to Mexico26.
The destination of stolen vehicles is often linked to the organized crime
group doing the exporting, and often determines which port is used by
the group. For instance, Eastern European crime groups may operate in
Toronto but are likely to ship their cargo out of Montréal or Halifax
in order for the vehicles to arrive most quickly in Eastern Europe27.
Similarly, Asian-based crime groups are most likely to ship their cargo
out of the port of Vancouver, even if they are stolen in Ontario or Quebec
and must travel first by rail to reach the port.
Europol estimates that organized international vehicle trafficking is
more profitable than prostitution or any other black market activity28.
Theft rings need only put out money to pay for the theft of the vehicle
and the cost of shipping, which together generally add up to less than
10% of what the stolen vehicle will sell for overseas29.
Vehicles that are destined for resale in another province must be disguised
or given a new identity before they can be sold, often to an unsuspecting
buyer. If the stolen vehicle is later identified and seized by police,
the buyer becomes the second victim, often with an unsecured loan which
must be paid30.
Stolen vehicles can be disguised in a variety of ways. One popular method
is Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) Switching, or “re-Vinning”.
To do this, theft rings will purchase a vehicle that has been in an accident
and has been written off as salvage, in order to obtain its Vehicle Identification
Number31. They will then
steal a car of the same make, model, and year and replace its VIN with
the VIN from the wreck wherever it appears on the vehicle. The stolen
vehicle is then resold under its new identity.
Another method of re-identifying stolen vehicles is through the production
of counterfeit VIN plates32.
Organized theft rings often copy legitimate VINs from another province,
thus eliminating the need to purchase a salvage vehicle, and allowing
multiple use of the VIN.
A recently released paper outlines another method of re-identifying stolen
vehicles33. This method,
called “body switching”, involves transferring the body of
a stolen vehicle to the frame or sub-frames of a wrecked vehicle. The
vehicle may be further disguised by mixing and matching interiors, engines,
and other parts. This poses a serious safety hazard for the innocent end
purchasers since the body switching does not necessarily comply with all
standards of repair and inspection, and the purchasers seldom know the
vehicle was damaged in another jurisdiction34.
Vehicle theft for parts is attractive to organized groups, since in many
cases a vehicle’s stripped parts are worth two to three times the
value of the vehicle itself35.
As with some of the vehicle re-identification schemes, organized theft
rings that steal vehicles in order to dismantle them and sell the parts
require a particular infrastructure, including land and labour for processing
vehicles and their parts36.
Theft rings may first steal a vehicle and then look for a buyer for its
parts, or may receive an order for certain parts and then steal a particular
vehicle in order to fill the order37.
Theft rings may get orders for specific parts directly from body shops
or re-builders. Brokers receive orders from the body shop and arrange
to hire thieves as necessary to acquire the vehicles that contain the
required parts. The thieves steal and then deliver the car to a “chop
shop” where it is dismantled and the requisite parts obtained. The
parts are then sold directly to the body shop. Alternatively, the theft
ring may receive orders from and sell stolen parts to an auto recycler,
who then sells the parts to the body shops38.
As a result, the body shops that end up using the parts may or may not
know that they came from a stolen vehicle39.
Combating the illegal export of stolen vehicles
theft prevention measures
Organized vehicle theft rings often work with each other, and are not
hampered by jurisdictional boundaries40.
As a result, the key to success in the battle against organized vehicle
theft is collaborative and dedicated partnerships at all levels of the
private and public sectors41.
There are a number of such partnerships and taskforces under way in Canada.
Among them are the Provincial Auto Theft Team (PATT) in Ontario, Project
CEASE (Controlled Enforcement of Automobiles Stolen for Export) in British
Columbia, Project CERVO (Control of the Exportation and Receiving of Stolen
Vehicles Overseas) in Quebec, and the Halifax Auto Theft Team (HATT) covering
the Atlantic Provinces42.
Each of these projects involves the participation of members of the Canada
Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA) as well as in most cases, members of
the RCMP and/or local municipal police services. These projects were formed
to identify and prosecute parties responsible for the illegal export of
stolen vehicles from Canada. Stolen vehicles located en route or in foreign
jurisdiction will be repatriated to Canada if financially feasible43.
These projects also gather intelligence on organized vehicle theft more
Internationally, the North American Export Committee (NAEC) is made up
of various representatives from Canada, Mexico and the United States.
The NAEC’s mission is to bring together those entities that share
a common goal of combating the exportation of stolen vehicles and to facilitate
contacts for the exchange of information and ideas to achieve that goal44.
Given the large volume of containers passing through Canadian ports each
day, Customs officials are unable to examine them all and are often forced
to rely on intelligence and personal experience in order to determine
which containers should be searched for goods being exported illegally45.
Generally such things as last minute bookings or declaration forms detailing
unusual commodities to unusual destinations are indications that a container
may not contain what its documentation says it should.
Also, certain gross weights are known to be the equivalent of a container
filled with vehicles, and if that weight is entered on a declaration form
it may be enough to get the attention of a Customs official. In these
cases, officials conduct what is known as a tail-end search, which means
opening the container and looking inside. If the official is unable to
see the contents clearly, a more thorough search will be conducted. If
vehicles are found, an investigation ensues to determine if the vehicles
are in fact stolen and, if so, they are removed from their containers
and the police are notified. Stolen vehicles are just one of the many
contraband items that Customs officials search for, however, and it is
likely that only a small portion of them can be detected at the ports.
There are a number of measures that can be taken by vehicle owners and
manufacturers to help prevent vehicle theft, which helps to combat organized
vehicle theft. Such measures include the use of steering wheel locking
devices, alarms, etchings, ignition kill switches, gearshift locks, tire
or wheel locks, hood locks, or vehicle tracking systems.
A standard for measuring the effectiveness of vehicle theft deterrent
systems was created by the Vehicle Information Centre of Canada (VICC)
in 1998. It requires deterrent systems to be passively armed (requiring
no driver intervention), to be disarmed using many possible key codes
and, when activated, cut off many vehicle systems such as the fuel pump,
the ignition and the starter motor46.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada indicates that while nearly half of all
new motor vehicles sold in Canada are equipped with VICC approved anti-theft
systems, most Canadians do not have anti-theft devices in their vehicles47.
Another measure that can help discourage motor vehicle theft is parts
marking. Parts marking provides police with a means of identifying a stolen
vehicle, as well as arresting and prosecuting the people involved. However,
Vehicle Identification Numbers are currently engraved on very few body
parts (fender, hood, and doors), making it difficult to track stolen parts.
An American study commissioned by the National Institute of Justice attempted
to determine the effectiveness of parts labelling in reducing auto thefts48.
Though auto theft investigators involved in the study remained divided
about whether parts labelling deters actual thefts, they did agree that
it clearly increases the thieves’ cost of doing business. They must
either take more time in selecting vehicles with unmarked parts, or accept
less money from chop shop operators who must spend extra time removing
the labels. However, even removing the labels is often not enough to disguise
a stolen vehicle or its parts. If police locate a vehicle component that
is known to have been labelled by the manufacturer but no longer has a
label, they are able to seize the part as stolen property and take the
profit away from the organized rings49.