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Automakers caught in 'cat-and-mouse game' with car thieves as auto thefts surge

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TORONTO -

Carmakers say they're caught in a game of cat-and-mouse with criminals as auto thefts surge.

Though they're taking steps to improve security features, the companies say every update is eventually countered by new efforts from bad actors.

Honda Canada is one of the automakers at the centre of the storm, as its CR-V is among the most frequently stolen models, according to a November report from insurance fraud prevention group Equite Association.

Other Honda models popular with thieves include the Accord and Civic, which both made the association's top-10 list of most frequently stolen vehicles.

Honda Canada knows theft is a significant problem and is continually improving its theft recovery technology, company spokesman John Bordignon said in an email.

"(It) remains a cat-and-mouse game impacting all vehicle brands and models, with thieves and criminal syndicates consistently attempting to defeat ... theft deterrent systems," Bordignon said.

The federal government's auto-theft summit on Thursday will bring together politicians, police, border agents and auto industry leaders to better co-ordinate and prevent thefts.

On Wednesday, the government announced a federal investment of $28 million to tackle the export of stolen vehicles.

Honda has systems to deter vehicle thefts, such as smart ignition keys that have a built-in transponder that must match the vehicle's computer to work.

"If they don't match, the engine won't start," Bordignon said. The latest tech is in Honda's CR-V, Civic and Pilot models, he added.

Honda also offers a locator system strong enough to penetrate metal shipping containers. It has an antenna that works as a standalone device -- even if the vehicle is disabled. The automaker said the system is covertly installed to make it difficult for thieves to find.

However, these measures may not be enough.

Diagnostic tools, software licences and other equipment are easily accessible online, while YouTube tutorials often fill knowledge gaps for thieves, allowing them to more easily access vehicles or manipulate how they function.

Breaking into a vehicle and reprogramming a key fob is the most common method of stealing, saidBryan Gast, vice-president of investigative services at Equite Association. Relay attacks are another way to steal a car, which involves intercepting the radio frequency between the key fob and the vehicle itself.

"There are other methods too that are constantly evolving," Gast said.

These crimes are well-financed and organized, and thieves are finding ways to overcome technological updates, said David Adams, chief executive of Global Automakers of Canada. The group has been advocating for stronger anti-theft policies.

"Different systems are put in place that may stop the problem for weeks or months, but then soon after that, (thieves) find another way to penetrate the vehicle's security systems and we're back to where we started," Adams said.

He said Canada has stringent standards for immobilizer tools for vehicles compared with the U.S., suggesting Canada should have a lower number of robberies -- but that's not the case.

"What's the common anomaly in Canada as opposed to the U.S.? That comes down to proximity to the (Port of Montreal)," he said.

Though rising auto theft is a national problem, Ontario and Quebec saw the largest jumps between 2021 and 2023, a report from Equite publishedTuesday shows. Ontario saw a 48.2-per-cent jump while Quebec experienced a 57.9-per-cent surge in car thefts during the two-year period.

In 2022, insurers paid $1.2 billion in claims for stolen vehicles in Canada, the Equite report said.

Most of the cars were exported to African or European countries via the Port of Montreal, said Gast.

Toyota Canada, whose Highlander and RAV4 models are also on the list of the top 10 stolen vehicles, said in an email that auto theft is mainly a regional problem due to proximity to the port, making vehicles in Ontario and Quebec more susceptible to being stolen.

"This is a situation of great concern to us, and we understand the public's anxiety," said Renee Larouche, communications director with the Montreal Port Authority.

"Containers of stolen cars arrive here already sealed, with a falsified declaration," she said. "We cannot open the containers."

"We must and can do better collectively to curb this problem, and work upstream, before the containers arrive at the port. By the time they reach us, the damage is done. But we're working with our data, our teams, and our highly secure territory."

Larouche said the port is enabling authorities to do their job effectively in tackling this problem, with measures such as 24/7 police access, biometric access control and surveillance tools.

Toyota Canada did not provide examples of its recent anti-theft updates but acknowledged thieves adapt to changes quickly. They may even turn to violence such as carjackings or home invasions if previous methods of theft become ineffective, said Philippe Crowe, a Toyota Canada spokesman.

"We're continuously improving the security of our vehicles," said Crowe. "This includes regularly introducing new or improved technical features to reduce the likelihood of a vehicle being stolen."

When asked about preventive measures, Ford Canada, whose F-150 is among the top vehicles targeted, referred to a document by the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association noting automakers follow Canadian standards for engine immobilizer features. Those have been mandatory since 2007.

Stellantis, whose Dodge Ram 1500 series is among the most stolen vehicles, also noted that it uses industry-standard vehicle-security technology and works to improve its products. It also urged its customers to take due care in securing their vehicles.

Precautions such as parking a vehicle in a garage or blocking it with another vehicle in the driveway can help prevent thefts, experts say.

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