Nearly 20 people have been arrested across the Greater Toronto Area in connection with an investigation into an alleged vehicle theft ring.

Toronto police said 175 officers were involved in 36 raids on Thursday morning.

"Project CBG," an investigation led by Toronto officers into trafficking of stolen vehicles overseas, targeted an alleged criminal organization accused of stealing high-end vehicles in Canada and distributing them to Ghana and Nigeria.

Toronto police worked with officers in Halton, Peel and York, as well as the RCMP, Canadian National Police, Canada Border Services Agency, the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and authorities in Spain and Belgium.

The investigation began in April 2015, when several vehicles were reported stolen from affluent areas of Toronto, Acting Deputy Chief Jim Ramer said Friday.

"As this investigation progressed it became apparent that this was more than just some petty thieves that were hot-wiring cars," Ramer said.

"In actual fact, investigators began to uncover evidence of a sophisticated organized crime ring with international reach, that specialized in stealing high-end brand vehicles."

Police allege that truck drivers, shipping company employees, blacksmiths and an employee of Service Ontario were all involved.

He said a number of vehicles with estimated values of between $60,000 and $80,000 were being taken from driveways in Toronto. They were eventually shipped to destinations in Africa from ports in Montreal and Halifax, Ramer said.

Toronto Police Staff Insp. Mike Earl said, in some cases, the vehicles were targeted for theft before being sold. He said that in some cases the vehicles were delivered to dealerships, with one of the car's two keys reported missing.

Police believe people involved in the scam took photos of the vehicle information numbers (VINs) and key codes, rather than stealing the key. The photos were allegedly sold for approximately $200, then a locksmith would make a copies of the keys, he said. The organization allegedly used two experts with computers to reprogram blank electronic keys for specific vehicles, so the vehicles' alarms wouldn't go off.

With the VIN, a Service Ontario employee was able to provide home addresses of the registered owners of the vehicles, Earl said. The thieves were able to go to the owners' homes, find the vehicles and use the copied keys to steal them from the owners' driveways, he said.

It is estimated that approximately 500 SUVs were stolen in Toronto and other parts of the GTA. Ramer said police believe the ring was responsible for approximately 10 to 15 per cent of all vehicles stolen in Toronto in 2015.

"The value of the vehicles stolen by this group amounts to a staggering $30 million," Ramer said.

He said investigators were able to recover approximately 200 of the vehicles, worth about $11 million. The vehicles were found in shipping containers destined for Africa.

As a result of the investigation, 640 criminal charges were laid against 18 people. Another six are still outstanding on arrest warrants, Ramer said.

Another 10 of the vehicles reported stolen were recovered during Thursday's raids, he added.

Officers said they also recovered tractor trailers, a locksmith van, auto parts, computers and illegal drugs and firearms.

Ramer said the group is believed to have connections to a "notorious organized crime group" known as the Black Axe.

The Nigeria-based group is known for engaging in fraud and laundering scams internationally, Ramer said.

Six alleged members of the group were also arrested in October following an investigation into a romance and money laundering scam in Toronto and the U.S.