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Ottawa to explore tougher auto-theft penalties, curb access to tools used by bandits

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OTTAWA -

The Liberal government is looking to put a dent in automobile theft by finding ways to ban devices commonly used to steal vehicles and eyeing tougher criminal penalties for perpetrators.

The proposals were among the more concrete ideas that emerged Thursday from a daylong summit aimed at confronting the national scourge of auto theft.

The governments, municipalities, law enforcement agencies and private-sector partners that took part agreed fighting the problem is complex -- with several potential remedies -- and requires a whole-of-society effort.

They also committed to finalizing a plan, to be released in coming weeks, to tackle a phenomenon that affects thousands of Canadian households annually.

"The rise over the last years has been alarming," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the gathering as it got underway.

Police officers and politicians listen as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers the opening remarks at an auto theft summit, Thursday, February 8, 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

He described how Canadian vehicles are turning up in places like Ghana and Nigeria, with one particular family having their SUV stolen on three separate occasions.

"Organized crime is becoming more brazen, and the overseas market for the stolen cars is expanding."

Trudeau blamed the previous Conservative government for slashing spending on border security, making it harder to prevent stolen vehicles from leaving the country.

And he took a pointed jab at Conservative rival Pierre Poilievre, who has been flooding the airwaves and social media with aggressive counter-programming aimed at neutralizing the effect of the gathering Thursday.

"A catchy slogan won't stop auto theft. A two-minute YouTube video won't stop organized crime," Trudeau said.

"Cracking down on auto theft means bringing law enforcement, border services, port authorities, carmakers and insurance companies together."

Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told the group the government would move to ban the import, sale and use of preferred tools, such as the Flipper Zero, for copying the wireless signals that allow remote keyless entry to vehicles.

"I think the overall message today is that, to the criminals out there, we're going to disrupt your activities with everything we have," Champagne told a news conference.

The company that makes the Flipper Zero swiftly responded, saying the item "is intended for security testing and development, and we have taken necessary precautions to ensure the device can't be used for nefarious purposes."

The federal government says an estimated 90,000 cars are stolen each year in Canada, resulting in about $1 billion in costs to Canadian insurance policyholders and taxpayers.

It says auto theft increasingly involves organized crime groups, and the proceeds of these crimes are used to fund other illegal activities. Most stolen autos shipped abroad are destined for Africa and the Middle East.

On Wednesday, the government earmarked $28 million in new money to help stop the export of stolen vehicles. It also recently devoted $121 million to help prevent gun and gang violence in Ontario, including organized crime and auto theft.

Reporters, staffers and members of Parliament listen to Minister of Public Safety, Democratic Institutions and Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc speak about auto theft, Wednesday, February 7, 2024 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The majority of vehicle thefts are taking place in Ontario and Quebec, with the autos exported through the port of Montreal, said Terri O'Brien, president of Equite Association, a national not-for-profit organization that supports Canadian insurers.

The latest funding and resources "will go a long way" toward investigations, analysis and inspections, O'Brien said.

Federal officials say Canada has strong laws in place to address auto theft at various stages of the crime, including possession and trafficking of stolen property, and tampering with Vehicle Identification Numbers.

The Criminal Code also includes comprehensive measures to target organized crime, including specific offences and enhanced sentencing for violent acts such as assault with a weapon, the government says.

Even so, Justice Minister Arif Virani acknowledged Thursday a need to review criminal laws to find improvements that would be targeted, efficient and intelligent -- and not cause more problems than they solve -- with a focus on links to organized crime and those running auto theft operations.

RCMP Commissioner Mike Duheme said a key is hitting organized criminal groups in the wallet, where it hurts. He suggested a formal federal listing of such groups, akin to the existing one for terrorist organizations, as a possible tool.

The prospect of toughening criminal penalties against car thieves was welcomed by Ontario Solicitor General Michael Kerzner.

"We want to stop the revolving door of people coming back out on our streets and doing it again," he told the meeting. "We want to have them locked up, we want to have them in jail."

In their "statement of intent" issued Thursday, participants recognized that fighting auto theft "is no small task" and committed to maintaining co-operation through a pan-Canadian dialogue.

Among the other planned federal actions:

  • Establishment of a means of better information sharing between local police and railway police to identify and find stolen cars before they get to ports;
  • Modernization of the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standards to ensure they consider technological improvements to deter and prevent auto theft;
  • Identification of cargo handling vulnerabilities through targeted assessments of port facilities;
  • and collaboration with Canadian companies to develop innovative solutions to protect vehicles against theft.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2024.

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