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Calls mount for better car security standards as feds schedule auto theft summit

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New federal standards that could make Canadian vehicles a harder target for prolific car thieves are one of the outcomes stakeholders hope for as the Canadian government invites provinces and industry officials together for a national summit.

Among them, an upgrade to the immobilizer, an anti-theft device that was the gold standard when it was introduced almost 20 years ago but now is defeated dozens of times a day by high-tech thieves spiriting cars overseas, whose record-breaking crime spree shows no signs of letting up.

“My dream scenario would be having the vehicle be harder to steal in the first place,” said Bryan Gast of Équité Association, a not-for-profit that helps insurance agencies fight fraud.

“Whether it’s modernizing vehicle standards for immobilizers, or working with the CBSA at the ports, I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, but it’s everybody coming together,” Gast said.

Public Safety Minister Dominic Leblanc announced the summit for Feb. 8, inviting police from all levels of government, insurers and auto industry representatives.

The government cited statistics that auto thefts are up 50 per cent in Quebec, 48 per cent in Ontario, 34 per cent in Atlantic Canada, and 18 per cent in Alberta. Nationwide, that adds up to about $1.2 billion a year, a report by Equite found.

In Toronto alone, police statistics show 12,170 vehicles were stolen in 2023, about 25 per cent more than the previous year. Carjackings in the Toronto area have more than doubled, and there have been other examples of thieves breaking into houses while people are home purely to get the car keys.

“One of the things that concerns all of us is that this is increasingly becoming a violent crime where people are assaulted in the process of stealing vehicles,” said Leblanc on Sunday.

Once stolen, the cars are often taken into shipping containers, whisked away to Canadian ports, and end up for sale as far away as Africa and the Middle East. An investigation by CTV News in 2022 tracked one car stolen from Ottawa to a car lot in Nigeria.

“This is happening from coast to coast. There’s certainly international implications,” said Chris Lewis, a former OPP commissioner.

In 2007, the federal government mandated installing immobilizers in new vehicles. If the key is not detected within a vehicle, the immobilizer makes it difficult to start the car.

However, the loophole thieves can use is a device that tricks your car into thinking the key is in the vehicle. One method is through relay attacks that decode the signal a fob emits and boost it to someone near the car. A car thinks the fob is inside and lets the driver start it.

Mass adoption of these tactics has turned parking lots of vulnerable cars into a bonanza for thieves. And while criminals are developing new tactics, the protections offered by car manufacturers haven’t kept up, said cybersecurity expert Claudiu Popa.

“It’s a cat and mouse game with organized crime,” Popa said, adding that one measure that could help is authentication like a password or a fingerprint scanner that is effective on cellphones but hasn’t been employed on much more valuable vehicles.

In York Region, police found 52 stolen high-end vehicles worth $3.2 million bound for Azerbaijan and Georgia, the force said Monday.

“It’s always startling and amazing when you open these cargo containers and you see the stolen vehicles sitting there, getting ready to go overseas,” said Sgt. Clint Whitney. “It’s big business what these criminals are involved in.”

York Regional Police announced another multi-million dollar stolen vehicle bust only a month before that. 

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