Calgary police are warning drivers to make sure they have their own plate on the back of their vehicles because of a recent massive spike in vehicle license plate thefts.  

Police say plate thefts have skyrocketed by more than 80 per cent in 2015 compared to 2014.

Staff Sgt. Kristie Verheul says the jump in plate thefts is consistent with an increase in stolen vehicles.

"Often what will happen is offenders will steal a vehicle, or have a vehicle that they are going to steal in mind, and then go and steal a plethora of plates to go on it so they can keep swapping the plates out to keep it fresh and drive that vehicle longer, " said Verheul, who is in charge of the economic crimes unit.

The plate from Erin Linn's truck was recently stolen. But Linn hadn't noticed because the thief had swapped it out with a different plate.

"It's a fairly new truck so I don't know the plate number, " said Linn. "I would never have known if the cop didn't phone me right then and there."
    
Linn says she was at work one day last November when police called to say her truck had just been involved in a gas theft. She told them it wasn't possible, because her truck was parked outside. 

The officer asked her to run out and make sure her plate was attached. She did, and then she read it to him.

"And it wasn't our plate, it was a stolen plate. So they stole our plate, put a stolen one back on our truck, and then went and stole gas at a Co-op gas station."

Hot commodities

Calgary police say the plates are not only used to cover up the tracks of criminals, they are also being sold in exchange for money or drugs. Verheul says stolen trucks are also increasingly being sold on the black market.

"Traditionally those vehicles are used for transportation, just to get from point A to point B, or to facilitate other crimes. But there is a percentage of those vehicles that are unrecovered and we believe are linked to organized crime and being used to sell to other criminals or to transport across Canada or internationally," said Verheul.

She says stolen vehicles are worth anywhere from $500 to $2,000 depending on the type and whether they have keys. Verheul says they charged a group of individuals in a vehicle theft ring earlier in 2015, and she believes there are more crime rings out there.

 "Overall the property crime increase has been happening for the last year or so, and it could be linked to the economy," said Verheul. "But I think it just is that vehicles and plates and other things are also being driven by the drug trade in our city and they are considered commodities."

Anti-theft screws

Verheul says police are looking at ways to work with resources from front line policing all the way up to the auto theft investigators. But she says they need people to report any suspicious behavior and to be diligent about checking on their plates.

"I'm way more vigilant now. I look at it daily, just to make sure that it's on and my plate, " said Linn.

Linn says she has also attached her new plate with anti-theft screws from a hardware store. 

In Edmonton, police provide these screws for free. The screws require a special tool to install and remove.

Calgary police say they plan to launch a similar initiative soon.