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Car thieves hit the gas. Drivers foot the bill.

Car thieves hit the gas. Drivers foot the bill.
Jess Frampton

Auto thefts, including carjackings, are up in the United States and Canada. Politicians are noticing – and so are insurance companies. Last week, Ottawa went as far as to convene a national summit dedicated to the problem, and the criminal trend has grabbed headlines in both countries, tracking the many locations where vehicles end up, from Malta to Mexico to Ghana.

The jump in stolen vehicles on both sides of the border has some concerned about a return to the bad old days. In 1991, there were 659 car thefts for every 100,000 people in the US. In 2022, there were 283 – much lower than in the 90s but the most since 2008 and an increase of 10% from 2021. More than a million vehicles were pinched, and Kias and Hyundais have been particularly hard hit, with a leap of 1,000% since 2020.

Canadian data paints a similar picture, with a decline in thefts throughout the early 2000s followed by a recent increase. In 2022, over 105,000 vehicles were stolen. While data is still coming in, 2023 looks to be just as bad or worse.

As cars go missing, and bandits make off like, well, bandits, drivers are set to pay for it. Politicians might end up paying, too, if dissatisfied voters turn their frustrations on the leaders. And while there are plenty of solutions to the problem, it won’t be solved overnight or by stump speeches calling for ‘law and order’.

Who’s responsible? Organized crime is largely to blame for the rise in thefts. Vehicles are stolen and transported overseas to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe through major ports such as Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax, and Newark. Some are driven across the US-Mexico border. Proceeds from stolen vehicles are used to fund gang and cartel operations and contribute to, among other things, human trafficking, drug dealing, and the illicit arms trade.

Why is it happening? As always, good, old-fashioned supply and demand is a key cause, particularly after the pandemic strained supply chains and the value of vehicles and auto parts shot up.

According to one expert, lax policing and a “mission accomplished” attitude adopted by police and politicians in the wake of previously declining theft rates also play a role in the increase, especially in Canada. Poor monitoring and policing of ports are also to blame.

Stolen vehicles are a significant problem on both sides of the border, but one country stands out as an extra-convenient playground for thieves. As Michael Rothe, president and CEO of the Canadian Finance and Leasing Association told Maclean’s, in recent years, “Canada in general became very much a high-reward, low-risk environment, particularly compared to the United States.”

Certain vehicles are also getting easier to steal. Last year, a handful of American cities sued Kia and Hyundai over the issue. The companies paid hundreds of millions in California after a viral TikTok trend showed users how easy it was to steal the cars. Manufacturers cutting corners has been a dream for gangsters and a nightmare for drivers as thieves exploit vulnerabilities in vehicles that are increasingly reliant on high-tech. And police rarely find the thieves – 90% of auto theft cases go unsolved in the US.

Who’s paying the price? Insurance rates in the US and Canada are up and may go higher still in 2024. The US saw a 26% increase over last year thanks to, among other factors, inflation and thefts. Drivers of commonly stolen cars in Canada have seen premiums rise between 25 and a whopping 50% in the last two years. A recent survey found more than 80% of Canadians are concerned about auto theft.

What can be done? The issue will likely draw more than just political attention, says Graeme Thompson, senior analyst of global macro‑geopolitics at Eurasia Group.

“I think it will put real pressure on governments to deal with the issue,” he says, noting that action will likely take a tough-on-crime approach, “if for no other reason than it’s easier to promise and communicate tougher criminal justice policies than something like port reform or new regulations for auto manufacturers, which are both downstream from the problem of people’s cars being stolen from their driveways.”

The issue has already brought about a response. In Canada, Conservative opposition leader Pierre Poilievre is promising to bring in tougher penalties for car thieves. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems open to charting a similar course. In the US, some states are on the same wavelength, including Tennessee, where candidates are going all-in on the tough-on-crime bandwagon.

Trudeau is also set to spend just under $30 million on the issue, earmarking the cash for the country’s border service agency and both domestic and international cooperation aimed at identifying and tracking down thieves. Ontario – a hotbed for theft – is dedicating its own cash, too, for police projects.

Cities and states in the US are adopting similar law-enforcement and information-sharing programs, including efforts by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul,New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, and New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

Drivers, meanwhile, are being advised to take matters into their own hands to help keep their vehicles safe – advice which only goes so far. People hit hard by higher insurance rates can shop around for alternative providers or even go so far as to avoid the most commonly stolen vehicles, for which insurers sometimes charge a premium.

Of course, we can’t divorce any policy action on these files from the electoral considerations that politicians on both sides of the border are watching. President Joe Biden and the Democrats are headed for an election in November while Trudeau and his Liberals, way down in the polls, are due for one by fall 2025. Auto theft may keep their attention.

As Thompson points out, “the perception of rising crime is becoming a real drag on both the Liberals in Canada and the Democrats in the US, and opposition parties are positioning themselves as best to handle the problem.”

In that regard, the opposition sides may have an advantage in both countries. While auto theft might not dominate voters’s minds, as Thompson notes, “if combined with a broader public concern over law and order, it would likely benefit the Tories and the Republicans.” So, don’t expect an end to the issue anytime soon – either thefts themselves or the political hand-wringing.


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