A joint police services operation put the brakes on an organized crime ring, suspected of stealing close to 500 vehicles in the Greater Toronto Area this year and selling them abroad.
“It became apparent that this was more than some petty thieves hot-wiring cars. In fact, investigators began to uncover evidence of a sophisticated organized crime ring with international reach specialized in stealing high-end vehicles such as Lexus, Acura and high-end Toyota vehicles,” said Acting Deputy Chief James Ramer.
The group allegedly ran an operation involving different individuals from shipping company employees, truck drivers, locksmiths, offloading vehicle employees at rail yards to one Service Ontario employee.
The estimated value of each vehicle stolen lies between $60 and 80,000 and the total value of vehicles stolen stands at around $30 million, said Ramer.
Through Project CBG, police executed 36 search warrants, arrested 18 individuals and laid 640 charges.
They also recovered 200 vehicles, valued at $11 million, said Ramer.
It is estimated this ring was responsible for 10-15 per cent of the vehicles stolen in Toronto this year.
Staff Inspector Mike Earl explained that, since January of this year, there had been a rash of motor vehicle thefts.
“We had to deal with the thefts or take the head of the snake off… so we went with the head of the snake,” said Earl, noting that it was through partnerships with other law enforcement agencies they were able to halt the overall operation.
The investigation, which at points included 50 officers working concurrently, was assisted by the Halton Regional Police Service, Peel Regional Police, York Regional Police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canadian National Police, Canada Border Services Agency, the Insurance Bureau of Canada and the United States Department of Homeland Security.
Earl alleged that the criminal organization took orders from overseas buyers on the makes, models and colours of vehicles to steal.
Initial vehicle thefts were done when people working for shipping yards, where vehicles are unloaded, were stealing spare keys of the brand new cars and, within a few days of the car being sold, it would be stolen from a driveway. As police began this investigation, the thieves, under pressure, changed their modus operandi, said Earl.
Soon they began photographing VIN numbers and key codes of the cars, these photos were sold to this criminal organization for up to $200 each, said Earl.
Once the suspects received a VIN, they allegedly worked with a Service Ontario employee to get an address of the new car owners once it was sold from the dealership.
The thieves would then work with a locksmith to use the key code and duplicate a key. Then at night, usually when the car owners would be asleep, car thieves would use the duplicate key to get into the driver’s side of the car without the alarm triggering, explained Earl.
“The blank key unlocks it and deactivates the alarm, but they still not going to be able to start the car,” said Earl.
This is when the thieves would allegedly use a laptop and electronic device to reprogram a blank key. “They plug it into the diagnostic plug which is for mechanics, and reprogram the blank key so that they’re driving away with a brand new motor vehicle,” said Earl, on the sophistication level of this criminal ring.
Most of the stolen cars were shipped to Nigeria and Ghana, with the assistance of shipping company employees in the GTA.
The criminal group is linked to Black Axe – a group originating in Nigeria, said Ramer.
This year, in a separate international investigation, the Toronto Police Service was involved in investigating members of Black Axe, which had allegedly laundered in excess of $5 billion, added Ramer.