This car was stolen from a driveway in Canada. We found it in West Africa
Auto theft considered a 'national crisis' in Canada, with nearly all stolen cars exported by organized crime
The call from Ghana woke Len Green at the Toronto home where his prized vehicle had been stolen a year earlier.
"I'm calling from CBC News," said the journalist on the other end of the phone. "We're doing an investigation into stolen vehicles, and I'm pretty sure I'm sitting in your vehicle … in West Africa."
"Whoa," he replied. "I can't believe it … that's crazy."
In the same lot, journalists found dozens of other vehicles, some with Canadian licence plates, often with their provincial registration and insurance documents still in the glove box.
All had been reported stolen from Ontario and Quebec. In 2021, there were just over 27,000 vehicles stolen from Ontario alone, according to a recent report by the Canadian Financing and Leasing Association. That's a car stolen every 17 minutes.
"A large portion of them are leaving the country," said Det.-Sgt. Mark Haywood of Peel Regional Police. "You'll see about 80 per cent of them going out through the ports."
In 2022, police and insurers said there was a never-before-seen billion dollars worth of cars stolen in Canada. It has the country's insurance industry warning of much higher premiums on the most targeted vehicles, and of the potential that some vehicles could be uninsurable.
'A national crisis'
"There is no doubt that vehicle theft has reached a national crisis in this country," said Terri O'Brien, president and CEO of Équité Association, which investigates insurance fraud on behalf of member insurance companies.
Her organization points to surging rates of theft just in 2022:
Ontario up 48.3 per cent year over year.
Quebec up 50 per cent year over year.
Alberta up 18.3 per cent year over year (after several years of decline).
Atlantic Canada up 34.5 per cent year over year.
How the stolen cars end up abroad is a fascinating and evolving crime.
To the Port of Montreal, then gone
Police sources tell CBC News that large, established organized criminal gangs based in Montreal are behind most of the thefts, though it's become so lucrative, other groups with less technical skill are becoming involved.
This partially explains what the police sources say is an increase in home invasions and violent attacks to obtain a vehicle and its keys.
Small teams sometimes mark cars in mall parking lots during the day by using GPS trackers similar to the ones people can buy and place in their luggage or on key chains to track lost items.
Then, typically at night, they use the trackers to follow the marked vehicles and take them from streets and driveways, quickly cramming multiple vehicles into shipping containers, which are then moved by truck or train to the Port of Montreal and loaded onto ships.
All this can happen in less than two days.
The vehicles are often destined for Africa and the Middle East — everywhere from Nigeria to the United Arab Emirates, Israel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo — where they'll soon appear in local used car lots, be listed on TikTok or sometimes be found in online classified ads with Canadian licence plates still attached.
But it was in the bustling capital of Ghana where CBC News located dozens of stolen vehicles. Many had been seized by authorities, while others were found on car sales lots, in parking lots and beyond.
While driving in a motorcade with Ghana's Economic and Organized Crime Office (EOCO), CBC reporters witnessed a Honda CR-V with Quebec licence plates drive past. The driver quickly darted onto a side street.
Investigators surmised that the car was stolen, as that model is among the most stolen in Canada, and had only just been unloaded from a ship.
Thefts can happen in under 5 minutes
Most thieves use one of three methods of attack.
The first type is a relay attack, which involves "capturing" the signal of a key fob, then replicating it to enter and start a vehicle. Thieves used to hold a large antenna in front of a house door, scanning for keys left inside, but the technology has advanced in the past year, becoming smaller and easier to use at a distance.
Then there is the onboard diagnostic port, accessible via a small door under the steering wheel in all vehicles. Typically used by a mechanic to connect a handheld computer that can diagnose a problem, the access point is being used by thieves to reprogram the car to understand a new key they've made for it.
The latest attack method involves the Controller Area Network (CAN bus), which acts similar to a nervous system for vehicles, enabling communication between various components of the car. Thieves connect to one of multiple nodes from the exterior of the vehicle, commanding it to unlock and start the engine.
The process may take only seconds.
"It's a weak point," said Natalie Cara of the CAN bus. She's seen her car, a Lexus RX350, stolen three times in less than a year, the first time from her Ontario home in 2022. It was later recovered and returned.
"I asked Lexus what they're doing about this and they said they're working on it."
In an emailed statement to CBC News, a spokesperson for Toyota Canada, which owns the Lexus brand, said it is "deeply concerned" about the impact of theft on its Canadian customers.
"We're continuously improving the security of our vehicles and we work closely with law enforcement agencies to confront this industry-wide problem," said Philippe Crowe.
In June last year, Cara happened to be looking out her office window in Mississauga, Ont., when she saw three masked men bent over the front of her car — and went out to confront them.
"Are you for real? What are you guys doing?" she recalled saying as they worked to start her car.
One became spooked, apologized, and took off in what she later found out from police was a stolen Porsche.
But Cara said the thieves had done damage, and her vehicle needed repairs. It ended up being stolen two days later from the garage — though it was later recovered.
How to stop these thefts
"From our perspective, it's a lack of enforcement," said Michael Rothe of the Canadian Financing and Leasing Association (CFLA), who argues Canada has fallen behind in the fight against the organized theft of vehicles for export.
"We've become a global donor in stolen vehicles. When you compare certain brands, there's more cars being stolen in Canada than there are in the U.S. … that gives you the sense of the magnitude of this issue."
The CFLA is among many groups calling for co-ordinated action, including an increase to the number of scanners used at ports to determine the contents of shipping containers, as criminal groups typically mislabel the containers.
Équité Association is calling for a swift update to federal vehicle theft prevention regulations. These rules have not changed since they were implemented in 2007, before keyless and remote start technologies were introduced.
According to Bryan Gast, of Équité Association, thieves can "easily exploit these vulnerabilities, which has led to this significant increase in stolen vehicles across Canada."
The organization wants to compel manufacturers to install effective anti-theft devices in every new vehicle.
"The rewards are very high and the risk is very low," said Deputy Chief Nick Milinovich of Peel Regional Police. "We have anecdotal stories of people who have stolen cars, walked out of court and stolen another car in the same parking lot."
"It's much easier to sell 15 cars on the black market than it is to sell 15 kilos of cocaine or 15 illegal guns," said Det.-Sgt. Haywood, who added the criminal gangs "are seeing that profitability."
Ghanian officials ask Canada to step up
The FBI sends regular intelligence on stolen vehicles to Ghana's EOCO, which has moved to seize vehicles it can prove have been obtained illegally.
But that's not as easy as it may sound.
While the sellers of the vehicles are believed to be involved in the criminal scheme, the buyers are not. They typically pay at least fair market value for the automobiles, in a nation where all vehicles are imported from abroad.
"We are only in possession of the stolen vehicles," said EOCO's deputy director Abdulai Bashiru Dapilah. "The victims, the place of the crime, it's all in Canada."
He says his investigators face regular threats from armed groups, and he's pleading with Canada to stop the flow of these vehicles before they reach foreign shores.
While the overwhelming majority of stolen vehicles they've identified come from Canada, Dapilah says he's never heard from the RCMP on this issue.
"No Canadian agency has approached us directly or made a formal complaint directly."
In Ghana, the vehicles move fast
Greg and Lynn Gannett managed to catch a glimpse of the thief that stole their Lexus from their Oakville, Ont., home in 2022 while watching footage from a doorbell camera — but it was hours after the car disappeared.
The police, Greg says, were blunt, telling them: "It's probably already on its way to Montreal, going to Africa or some other foreign country."
They were right. Months later, authorities in Ghana raided a suspect car lot in Accra and marked down the Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN) of the vehicles for sale. The Gannetts' Lexus was among those vehicles, but its stolen status had not yet reached Interpol, so authorities had no reason to seize it.
CBC News discovered a report on the suspect VINs filed by Ghanian authorities and quickly engaged someone to examine the vehicles undercover. Scrutiny by car lot workers meant he couldn't get close, but one vehicle he saw matched the description of the Gannett's Lexus.
EOCO warns these dealerships make huge money in a poor country, and they're willing to protect that lucrative arrangement with force — including by arming their employees.
When CBC arrived at the dealership, the lot was full of late model Toyota Highlanders, Lexus RX350s, Honda CRVs, Land Rovers and Mercedes, among other cars on Canada's most stolen list.
Employees were quick to push back, blocking the CBC News camera, confronting the journalist and insisting they knew nothing about theft. But they also refused to allow people to see the VINs of the vehicles to determine if they were stolen.
But the Gannetts' Lexus was already gone. Either moved to another lot or more likely, EOCO told CBC, already sold and on the road — quite possibly with the Ontario registration documents still inside.