Winnipeg police say they're facing a new trend in vehicle theft, in which criminals use a sophisticated scheme involving forged documents to fraudulently buy the cars from auto dealerships.
Many are then shipped overseas and resold.
Police on Thursday announced the results of a more than year-long investigation into such thefts, which resulted in several arrests, including one this past weekend.
Police first learned of the scheme in the summer of 2016 when, during a two-month period, eight vehicles worth a total of $520,000 were taken from various dealerships.
Investigators discovered that out-of-province bank accounts and driver's licences, as well as forged employment records, were used to finance the vehicles.
Two vehicles were later recovered in a shipping container in the port of Montreal, bound for overseas, according to Const. Jay Murray.
'Very concerning fraud trend'
They were discovered by Canada Border Services Agency officers doing regular inspections. The vehicle identification numbers were checked and came up as stolen, Murray said.
"Where these vehicles would have ended up, we're not sure."
The other six vehicles have not been found, nor have any of the suspects involved in their theft, Murray said. However, the discovery made police aware of the scheme.
Investigators then developed relationships with numerous auto dealerships in the city while the financial crime unit created an operation called Project Whip "in response to what was now a very concerning fraud trend," Murray said.
It was through those relationships four men were caught doing the same thing in October and December 2016.
Three vehicles — a 2016 Chrysler 300, a 2012 Mercedes C63, and a 2012 Range Rover — were fraudulently financed through fake bank accounts, Murray said.
Officers recovered two of them in Winnipeg and the third in Ritchot, south of the city. Four men were arrested throughout 2017; the fourth just last weekend, which is why the investigation was made public, Murray said.
Two men from Winnipeg — a 31-year-old and a 26-year-old — are charged with participating in a criminal organization, fraud, identify theft, using forged documents and possessing property obtained by crime.
A 22-year-old man from Calgary is charged with the same offences, while a 48-year-old man from Winnipeg is charged with possessing property obtained by crime.
None of them are connected to the initial eight vehicles taken during the summer of 2016, according to Murray.
"It's a very complicated investigation and this is one of the reasons it's taken a year and a half to complete," he said.
"You have a number of levels of complexity — you have banks that are dealt with out of province, you have out-of-province driver's licences that are manipulated or created, and now they come to Winnipeg and deal with these auto dealerships.
"There's a lot of different layers."
And there are numerous victims, including the people whose identity was used for the forged documents and accounts, the banks whose money was stolen, and the dealerships, Murray said.
"It's not an issue that's unique to Winnipeg. This is happening all over Canada but we're fortunate enough to have a financial crime unit that has attempted to at least get ahead of this issue," Murray said.
Police are using the arrests to remind people, particularly those at the car dealerships, to closely scrutinize documents such as driver's licences.
Compare them to your own "and you'll quickly see the differences," Murray said.
"The fake ones were fairly well constructed but they don't hold anything to the actual, legitimate ones we have."