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Was your car stolen? It may have left Canada through the Port of Montreal

One moment it was in her mother’s driveway. Twelve hours later, it was in a container at the Port of Montreal, set to be loaded onto a ship.

The same day Louise Gagnon reported the theft in Dorval, Que., in October 2021, a detective called to say her Honda CR-V had been recovered, along with three other vehicles, with the help of her GPS tracker.

But in their haste to load it into the container, the thieves had damaged the hood and rear cargo door.

“You could see the marks from the lift truck and there were scratches on the side and they’d tried to pry the lock,” Gagnon recalled.

They had also remotely reprogrammed her mother’s brand new Nissan Rogue, but it was parked in the garage and they couldn’t get the door open.

Gagnon had to wait another eight months before her vehicle was repaired and returned.

Thousands of others who have their vehicle stolen never see it again. Experts say the slowdown in the production of new vehicles during the pandemic has contributed to a recent spike in thefts.

In Montreal alone, 9,591 vehicles were stolen last year, up from 6,527 in 2021 — and many of those end up overseas, police said. SUVs and pickup trucks are among the most stolen.

Industry representatives and experts maintain auto theft is not a victimless crime, even if replacements are often covered under insurance. 

Stolen vehicles drive up premiums and help fund organized crime in Canada and overseas, they say. 

The amount paid out by insurance companies in Quebec has soared, from roughly $111 million in 2018 to $269 million in just the first nine months of 2022, according to the Insurance Board of Canada.

Hidden in containers

As the largest port on Canada’s East Coast, Montreal serves as an important hub for exporting goods — and increasingly, stolen vehicles, experts say.

An auto industry representative says authorities need to do more to crack down on the problem.

David Adams, the president and CEO of Global Automakers of Canada, said it’s no secret a large number of stolen vehicles are funnelled through the Port of Montreal.

“The question is, how serious, or how bad does this situation have to become before the authorities really do something about it,” said Adams.

Adams suggested more enforcement is needed to prevent vehicles being exported.

But the sheer volume of goods and the size of the port make that a difficult task. It spans 30 kilometres and routinely handles more than 1.5 million containers a year.

A worker at the port, who asked not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak publicly, suggested the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) doesn’t do enough spot checks.

“They’re not at the port all that often,” they said. 

“Imagine you have to fly to wherever, and you get to the airport and they only check once in a while. Or that they’re not there when you go through.… This is a little bit what it feels like.”

The CBSA wouldn’t say how many containers it scans, but a spokesperson said the documentation is reviewed for every container at the port. A small percentage are set aside for further examination

A daunting task

The CBSA’s role at the port is to detect contraband, be it narcotics, firearms or stolen goods, which includes stolen vehicles.

Salvatore Barbieri, a superintendent for the CBSA at the port, acknowledged that can be a challenge, given the amount of goods being imported and exported.

“The volume of containers that come into Montreal, we have to do a risk assessment,” he said.

He said CBSA agents examine export declarations in an attempt to identify suspicious containers, looking for red flags related to a shipment’s destination or a shipping company’s track record.

Officers can also act on clues they receive from the police or intelligence services.

If there are questions about a shipment, a container can be opened for a spot check or scanned by the CBSA’s large-scale imaging truck, which enables authorities to X-ray the contents. 

A vehicle’s identification number, known as a VIN, is examined to see if the car has been reported stolen or illegally modified.

The CBSA intercepted 1,050 stolen vehicles at the port last year, up from 269 five years earlier.

The vast majority of these vehicles originally come from the Montreal and Toronto areas, though increasingly, stolen vehicles intercepted at the port hail from as far away as Calgary and Edmonton, the CBSA said. 

Barbieri did not directly respond to questions about whether the CBSA has enough resources to deal with the increase in exported stolen vehicles. But he did say there are dozens of officers working on rotation at the terminals.

When further questioned about whether there has been an increase in funding or staffing, a CBSA spokesperson said their budget has remained stable but that the agency is “operationally flexible and strategically allocates resources as and when required to respond to any threats or service demands at our ports of entry.”

The Port of Montreal declined an interview request. In a statement, a spokesperson said the site is equipped with more than 350 cameras and monitored 24 hours a day. 

The spokesperson said the port works closely with the RCMP, CBSA and local police to prevent contraband being imported and exported.

To Italy and beyond

It’s difficult to know exactly how many stolen vehicles are being shipped out of Montreal, but an increasing number from Canada are being found abroad, said Renato Schipani, a criminal intelligence officer at Interpol.

“We find hundreds of stolen Canadian cars in Italy being shipped through Italy to the Middle East, then hundreds of Canadian cars tracked and located in West Africa,” said Schipani, who is based at Interpol’s head office in Lyon, France and specializes in vehicle theft.

recent investigation by CBC’s Marketplace found vehicles stolen from Ontario and Quebec were openly being advertised and sold in West African countries, including Nigeria and Ghana. 

Generally speaking, Schipani said border agents tend to focus on imports over exports, making them vulnerable to stolen goods shipped abroad.

But Schipani said the unchecked export of vehicle thefts can have serious consequences, helping to finance further criminal activity. He said Interpol has linked car theft rings to drug trafficking, arms dealing, human smuggling and international terrorism.

“This is not a Canadian issue, not a U.S., it’s a universal issue,” he said.

He said greater co-ordination between private companies, local law enforcement and ports around the world would help.

New tech, new problems

Experts say thieves tend to target newer cars that use a push-to-start ignition and which are especially vulnerable to theft. 

High-tech tools allow thieves to easily bypass security systems and remotely access or reprogram key fobs, said Bryan Gast, vice-president of investigative services at Équité Association, a group representing insurance companies.

“The technology has evolved with the criminals being able to steal these vehicles and bypass those systems,” said Gast, a former police officer.

“We do work with auto manufacturers. They are very interested in working in identifying the vulnerabilities. The difficulty is the technology changes so rapidly.”

Gast said many of these thefts involve a high level of co-ordination and technology.

There are people who scout for the sought-after vehicles, others who steal them, and still others who organize getting them into a container and onto a ship.  

“Identifying the vehicles before they’re actually exported out of the country is the preferred method but, obviously, we don’t get them all,” he said.

“We’re starting to see Canada becoming a source nation for these thefts.”