The auto theft rings multi-million dollar underground industry
Johnny’s the watchdog tonight. Standing 20 metres away in a shadowy corner of a Mississauga parking lot, he gives his two buddies the go signal. Mali* makes a light swing with a rock wrapped in cloth against the driver’s side window. He pauses and looks around. Nobody noticed. Then he quietly slips one hand in, with a glove on, and the window completely breaks. He unlocks the door. They get in and Buddy-Dave* pulls out a Phillips screwdriver. He jabs it forcefully into the ignition and turns it with a wrench–Bamm–the car is on. Johnny eyes his first prized possession: a 1993 Honda Civic Hatchback reversing from the parking lot, speeding up towards him. He hops in and they take off. Under 60 seconds, his crew revved up the engine of the car and in less than 12 minutes, they get to the body shop. One thousand and seven hundred dollars exchanges hands and Johnny gets his cut: a mere $200 for his first gig. But he is just one of the many car thieves linked to organized crime groups in Ontario that makes Canada the car theft capital in North America.
Stealing cars for joyriding has taken a backseat to stealing cars for money—and lots of it. Thieves can make as little as Johnny’s first paycheck, or up to millions in an operation. Car theft rings operate across the country, but Ontario, particularly Toronto, is the hub of Canada’s auto theft activity. Organized car theft rose to 64 per cent higher from a decade ago, according to Insurance Bureau of Canada. There are about 480 car thefts everyday, meaning one car is stolen every three minutes. In Ontario alone, more than 50,000 cars get stolen annually. The fact is, car thieves are getting better at what they do. That’s why they’re making more money. It’s a lucrative business that has always been on the rise, and is increasing in international scope.
So how does this multi-million dollar industry work?
Well, someone like Johnny can be working with three to four people but auto theft rings can be as big as 20 or more collaborating under the umbrella of a ringleader. A report from the RCMP says that these guys hire youths between 12 to 17 years old to do their dirty work, to protect the upper levels of organized crime. Most of them are of Asian, East Indian, Lebanese, African, and East European ethnic-based criminal groups. But Det. Douglas Lawson, from the Commercial Auto Crime Bureau of Peel Regional Police says that it doesn’t need to be a large organization, although the more people under you, there’s less chances of being caught. It all depends on how they work.
“I think alot of these guys are smaller groups. There’s really no hierarchy. Every member is involved in the process from stealing and exporting of cars,” Lawson added.
So there’s chop shops. Those are the kind of places where stolen vehicles are disassembled and sold piece by piece to “shady” auto repairs or body shops. Stripping is another method where only the individual parts are stolen, and the car is left abandoned. The thieves wait for the owner to report it as stolen and when the police recovers it, the theft record is canceled. The stripped car will then be sold at an insurance or police auction, and the same thieves buy the frame, reattach the parts they took, and then sell the car that’s no longer listed as stolen. Some have gone from test driving cars at a dealership and taking off with it, to resorting to violent means such as carjacking and home invasions to obtain a car.
These guys also specialize in the classic VIN switching method called “revinning”. Basically, organized crime legally purchase cars written off as salvage wrecks from auto junkyards just to get a valid VIN, that is, Vehicle Identification Number, a 17-digit code that is unique to each vehicle. For instance, an auction in Ottawa sold a 1994 Chevy 4X4 worth $500 as a scrap metal for as much as $6, 200. But once they have the VIN, the really good thieves steal an identical car–same make, colour, model and year. Then they take the VIN plate from the wrecked car and fit it to the stolen one. That way, when the VINs are removed from the stolen car, it can no longer be traced.
But not every criminal wants to pay for VINs, so they’ve decided that they should steal VINs instead. Since there’s no communication between the United States and Canada, in relation to the Ministry of Transportation offices, there’s no records to check if claims are legal. However, the Ontario Branding legislation program that started in 1998 is supposed to put a dent in this problem. It scraps the VIN of a salvaged car so it’s no longer re-usable. Still, criminals can just move elsewhere.
“All you have to do is drive down to the States, go to a parking lot and copy the vehicle number down, then come up to Canada to the ministry and say you lost your ownership,” Lawson explains.
Once a car is stolen, re-vinned, and re-registered, it’s up for resale. So if you report a stolen car, let’s say a 2000 Honda Civic SiR, which tops as one of the most stolen vehicle, chances of its recovery is rather slim.
“It’s a target because it’s easier to steal, and there’s demand for the parts,” Manny Ouppal from Roy’s Auto Body Shop comments.
In one case, Jose Bermudez, a 24-year old from Mississauga, got his 1992 Acura Integra, broken into twice and stolen from his apartment parking lot in a span of just three years. Two weeks later, police found it like an empty shell sitting in a vacant parking lot in Etobicoke. By this time, its various parts–four tires, rims, brake, speakers and amps have probably been torn down and sold in scrap yards, or getting salvaged in chop shops, or have crossed borders from Ontario to another province and sold elsewhere.
“But you have to stay loyal to the game. You don’t turn them in.”
But if you lost a recent model sports-utility or a luxury car, it might have gone overseas to Europe, South America and Asia, in whole or in parts because the demand for luxury cars there remains very high. They’re shipped in containers with counterfeit documentations, that will cost a theft ring around $5000 to Europe or Asia. But it pays off. Three stolen luxury cars, which may be sold for twice than their North American value, can sit in one shipping container and the profits can range from $40,000 to $100,000. What’s more, a vehicle can be shipped off, with VIN intact, just within the hour it was stolen. And if there’s up to 7,000 containers per ship, it’s impossible to check every one of them. The North American Export Committee cites over 200,000 containers with illegally shipped vehicles every year. Once it sails away, odds of getting the car back are next to nothing.
In one recent case, the Peel Region Police raided an Asian-based organization in Mississauga that resulted in three arrests and recovery of 15 vehicles with an estimated value of $350,000. In another, a Quebec-based auto theft ring stole 85 high-end cars from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport worth over $6 million in a span of six months. The 11 cars that police found were worth $1 million, stolen within a 48-hour period.
Car owners can deter thieves by protecting their cars with alarm and security devices like Immobilizers or Boomerangs. But Johnny thinks that it will only stall a car thief. If they want it, they’ll find a way. People buying stolen cars in good faith can have losses too, because it can be taken away from them without any compensation. Plus, it costs insurers about $1 billion annually.
“This will add about $50 to each insurance policy,” John Karapita, media relations manager for IBC says.
Also, if vehicle theft didn’t exist, it would save provincial governments $250 million in one year alone. Until there’s a national vehicle registry, that will have a single system to keep track of all vehicles, car thieves still have some room to maneuver, and this underground economy will continue to boom
As for the ex-car thief Johnny, he started working for legit money. He calls it “safe” money.
“It’s like you’re a freelancer. If you don’t want to do it anymore, you don’t,” he says.
“But you have to stay loyal to the game. You don’t turn them in.”
*names have been changed because persons interviewed wants to remain anonymous