Leave Canada? Sue automakers? Victims consider their options as auto thefts surge

As the Greater Toronto Area confronts an auto theft crisis, some residents are considering bold – or arguably radical – action.

Kamran Hussain, who moved to Canada from India on an international student visa in 2017 and has completed the arduous process of becoming a permanent resident, said he has thought about leaving the country after he woke up on the morning of Jan. 11 to find nothing but the shattered glass of his car window on his east Toronto driveway.

"I came out and the car was gone," said Hussain, referring to his 2022 Toyota Highlander.

For the 30-year-old telecom worker, the already complicated task of becoming a Canadian permanent resident had been made harder by the pandemic, when various bureaucratic steps were backed up. But he said he had chosen to make a home in Canada because he saw it as safe.

That's a reputation he now feels has been cast in doubt by the auto theft epidemic.

"I'm looking for options," he said when asked if he was seriously considering leaving Canada.

"I left my country because of the instability there," he said. "But now, with the growing issues that are happening here in terms of safety, the thefts, the break-ins and rising crime, it is a big concern for me."

Hussain's experience with vehicle theft did not involve a risk to his personal security. The thieves never entered his home.

But he said he has been jarred by reports of criminals breaking into homes with weapons and demanding keys to vehicles.

The surge in auto thefts has led to rises in home invasions, violent robberies and gun violence throughout the GTA, according to Toronto police.

Ontario Provincial Police have described the province's current rate of car thefts as "unprecedented," fuelled in part by demand for luxury vehicles in foreign markets.

The Équité Association, an anti-crime organization funded by insurance companies, has said that for the first time ever Ontario exceeded $1 billion in auto theft claims last year.

Amid mounting public frustration, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau convened a national auto theft summit in February, urging closer collaboration between law enforcement, border services, the insurance industry and automakers.

Laura Paquette, another auto theft victim, is trying to focus more attention on the role of car companies: specifically, she has been wondering if automakers can be sued for making cars that she argues are too easy to steal.

At 4 a.m. on Jan. 10, she said she heard her Toyota SUV beep, the familiar sound of it being unlocked.

"I was in a total shock," she said in a recent interview. "I woke up my partner and I'm like, 'somebody is stealing my truck.' And we ran downstairs and it was gone."

The 52-year-old social worker described the ordeal that followed as a "nightmare."

Police found her car, but it required substantial repairs.

In the meantime, she was out $2,000 in monthly rental costs for a replacement vehicle because her insurance only covered $1,000. She said she was also still making her $700 monthly payment on the stolen car, in addition to $230 per month for insurance.

Reflecting on what she endured, and how seemingly straightforward it was for thieves to take her vehicle, she called for automakers to face "accountability."

"If I invested money in a security door for my house, and if everybody with a blank key fob could come into my house, I would kind of feel defrauded, right?" she said. "That's how I feel about my vehicle."

Paquette said she is discussing her legal options.

"Why is it on the consumer to protect ourselves?" she said. "Vehicles are big investments, so why are they so easily stolen? Why do I have to go to extremes to prevent that?"

In the weeks following the national summit on auto theft, law enforcement agencies have sought to highlight a series of successes.

Those include a joint OPP and Canada Border Services Agency operation that recovered 598 stolen vehicles destined for export at the Port of Montreal, Canada's gateway to the foreign stolen vehicle market. The vehicles had an estimated value of $35.5 million dollars.

OPP said 75 per cent of the vehicles recovered were stolen in Ontario, where the provincial government announced last month that it planned to purchase four new police helicopters, at a cost of about $36 million, in part to fight the auto-theft crisis.

Toronto police and Bryan Gast, vice-president of investigative services at the Équité Association, have linked the rising problem to organized crime.

Gast noted that auto theft rates had been ticking up annually prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he said the supply chain issues triggered by the associated global shutdown made both new and used vehicles harder to find.

"Organized crime leverage that problem and are profiting from it," he said. "That's when the numbers have increased," he added, noting that insurance claim costs related to auto theft in Ontario have risen by 319 per cent since 2020.

Toronto police Staff Supt. Pauline Gray has said that auto theft is now a top three revenue generator for organized crime groups.

Gast praised the new levels of co-ordination launched in response to the crisis but said that ultimately only one metric will matter in assessing its success.

"The goal will be to stop that upward trend to at least a flat line and then a decline," he said.

"The success shows in the results: the number of vehicles in Canada that are being stolen, that'll give us an indication of how well the collaborative plan is working."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2024.

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press