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48 stolen vehicles recovered in undercover bust: Toronto police

Police say stolen cars were being shipped overseas or re-sold in Greater Toronto Area

Superintendent Steve Watts, of the Organized Crime Enforcement for the City of Toronto Police force, speaks to the media regarding the results of Project Paranoid, a vehicle theft investigation in Toronto on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Toronto police say officers seized 48 stolen vehicles as part of an undercover auto theft investigation dubbed Project Paranoid.

Investigators displayed some of the vehicles, along with six recovered firearms and several programmed and unprogrammed key fobs, at a news conference Wednesday.

Police say information gathered in April 2023 during a separate undercover drug and gun trafficking investigation, Project Spectre, led them to launch a second investigation in August that year focused on stolen vehicles.

"Project Paranoid demonstrates the resources that the Toronto Police Service is dedicating to tackling the auto theft epidemic and the positive results of this work," Toronto police Staff Supt. Pauline Gray told reporters.

"It also demonstrates the importance of collaboration among stakeholders to address an issue that is impacting the well-being of all of our communities."

They say 20 of the recovered vehicles were seized at a shipping location in Burlington, while another 20 were intercepted with the help of border agents in Toronto and Montreal.

Between the two undercover investigations, police say they have arrested seven people and laid 150 charges.

The investigation was funded through a provincial grant and Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario.

In a news release, Toronto police say the stolen vehicles were being stored at several businesses in the Greater Toronto Area before being sold and being shipped overseas, or before being re-vinned and registered to be re-sold.

"These vehicles were purchased, re-vinned and re-registered, which is kind of the first time in law enforcement that this has been done," said Toronto police Supt. Steve Watts.

Re-vinning a car allows a suspect to change the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), replacing it with a different number to give it a false sense of legitimacy.

Thousands of stolen vehicles being recovered: police

Gray said Project Paranoid is just one of many investigations that have led to the recovery of stolen vehicles in Ontario over the last year or so.

"In 2023, police services in our province worked together to recover 15,000 stolen vehicles valued at over half a billion dollars," she said.

Programmed and unprogrammed key fobs for cars were also seized during the investigation. (Greg Bruce/CBC)
Programmed and unprogrammed key fobs for cars were also seized during the investigation. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

Just last week, Toronto police Chief Myron Demkiw said a car was stolen "every 40 minutes" in Toronto in 2023, adding more than 12,000 vehicles were stolen in Toronto that year.

Équité Association, a national organization focused on preventing fraud and auto thefts, said it offered its assistance to police as part of Project Paranoid.

"In Canada, a vehicle is stolen every five minutes," said Bryan Gast, the vice-president of investigative services at Équité. "The vehicles that the organized crime groups are targeting in Ontario are newer and have greater value than ever before."

Gast says it's important to stop auto theft in the community before stolen cars make their way to the Canadian ports to be shipped overseas.

The province and federal government are both working to fight auto theft across Ontario.

In the 2024 provincial budget tabled by the finance minister on Tuesday, $46 million was allocated for the purchase of four police helicopters, which will primarily be used by police forces in the Greater Toronto Area.

"We're getting into the area of police pursuits which are high risk," said Watts.

"We're getting to the area of suspects that are driving with complete disregard for everyone on the roadway. A helicopter is a huge asset. Air support is a huge asset."

At a national auto theft summit held in Ottawa last month, auto industry representatives urged the federal government to increase penalties for auto theft to make the risk for thieves outweigh the reward. The federal justice minister said he would consider it.

At the summit, industry representatives also called on the government to strengthen enforcement at Canadian ports.