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Ontario-wide spike in high-end car thefts reaches Cambridge and Guelph

Police and manufacturers warn vehicle owners to take precautions after rise in local high-tech thefts
Screenshot 2021-10-08 9.11(1)
Screen shot taken from security footage at Sandra Riberdy's home on Lardner Street showing thieves stealing her Lexus RX350 on the morning of Oct. 6.

After working her way up from driving an inexpensive Corolla to a family minivan, the 2020 Lexus RX350 in Sandra Riberdy’s driveway was more than a car. It was the result of 25 years of hard work and sacrifice. It was the car she’d always dreamed of owning. 

It didn't matter when she was told about the risks of owning a model so sought after by car thieves. She loved that car.

She doubled up on the recommended security measures, purchasing a Faraday security box and a pouch designed to block the radio-frequency ID signal from her key fob. Every night she placed it in the pouch, inside the box, safely in her home.

She even wrapped the fob in tinfoil to provide an extra layer of security. 

It didn’t help.

On Oct. 6 she woke up to find her car missing, stolen out of her driveway on Lardner Street in Hespeler.

A home security camera captured the entire incident.

“It’s clear these guys are professional car thieves,” Riberdy said of the video, calling what she witnessed that morning “next-level theft crap.”

“For them to so brazenly do that I was just like, ‘what is happening?,’” she said.

Waterloo regional police say Riberdy isn’t alone.

Police are responding to a spike in “reprogramming thefts” targeting high-end vehicles across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), said WRPS spokesperson Ashley Dietrich.

The top four vehicles reported stolen include the Honda CRV, the Lexus RX 350, Toyota Highlander and Ford F150.

Thieves typically use technology, sometimes even a smart phone app, that grabs a radio signal from the key fob and copies it to a blank fob used to enter and start the vehicle.

Vehicle owners are increasingly being warned to keep their key fobs away from an exterior door where thieves can use a signal booster to grab the RFID.

But in Riberdy’s case, even with the security footage, exactly what happened remains a mystery.

Dietrich said detectives on the WRPS vehicle theft team wouldn’t comment for fear it could compromise their investigation, but added she's unaware of any other method being used by thieves to gain access to locked vehicles.

Even with security footage, it’s difficult if not impossible to determine how the thefts are occurring, she added

Despite that uncertainty, WRPS issued a media release in August highlighting what police called a trend in “relay technology” thefts across Waterloo region.

Between July 9 and August 6 local police investigated 24 vehicle thefts with Toyota and Lexus topping the list of vehicles targeted by thieves in those cases.  

The thefts occurred near RIM Park in Waterloo, Doon South and Grand River South in Kitchener.

Despite an increase in these kinds of crimes locally, Dietrich said Halton Region is the current hot spot for vehicle thefts in the GTHA.

Halton Regional Police Service recently reported the city of Burlington in particular is seeing a huge spike in stolen vehicles using keyless entry and push start technology.  

In September alone, 10 vehicles were stolen in that city using what police believe is a relay device. 

All vehicles were taken from residential driveways during the overnight hours and the thefts generally take less than 20 minutes to complete, police said. 

In Guelph, Scott Tracey, media relations coordinator at the Guelph Police Service confirmed there have been six Lexus vehicles stolen in the city since the beginning of September. 

In one instance, the keys were left inside the vehicle. In two other reports it was mentioned that all keys were accounted for and in the remaining three reports, there was no mention of possible methodology.

Sergeant Chris Probst, who is leading the investigation of stolen vehicles in Guelph, said car thefts are a constant crime and recently there has been a definite pattern.

“Lexus is the target. Toyota Lexus making model R appears to be the common thread,” said Probst.

“High end vehicles are something that have always been attractive to people that are nefarious and are exporting them via unofficial methods to various countries.”

He said the first Lexus was stolen on Sept. 13 and while there have been many cases throughout the province where electronic devices were likely used, Guelph police have not been able to identify how locked Lexus cars in Guelph were stolen.

Tracey said the GPS has been in communication with surrounding services who experienced similar thefts.

“In most cases it is difficult to determine methodology until an arrest is made and/or the vehicle is recovered and can be examined,” said Tracey. 

Michael Bouliane, corporate communications manager at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Canada Inc. said certain vehicles are in higher demand than others when it comes to the issue of auto theft.

“Our industry has also been working closely with the Canadian insurance industry and police authorities across Canada to assist with investigations related to vehicle theft,” said Bouliane in an email, adding the company is committed to addressing security challenges facing the entire auto industry by developing technology that strengthens the security of their vehicles.

“For example, all Toyota and Lexus models equipped with a smart key offer a key fob feature that turns the key fob off when not in use. Toyota and Lexus customers who would like to activate this feature should consult the key fob section of their owner’s manual under 'battery saving function' for more information,” said Bouliane.

Knowing she did everything right is little consolation for Riberdy who wonders if thieves are using something “next level” that police don’t know about.

In her surveillance video, she says it appears one of the suspects places something under her car after trying to jimmy the door open.

Then, after leaving and coming back 10 minutes later, she says the car door opens.

Once inside, she thinks the thief gained access to the car’s diagnostic system and was able to start it that way.

“I was just shocked when I watched that footage, like ‘what is going on here?’”

Halton police are suggesting low-tech solutions like parking vehicles in a locked garage or even blocking the exit of target vehicles with a second vehicle. 

Police also recommend installing a steering wheel lock device and a GPS tracking device.

It all seems pretty extreme to Riberdy who has heard all kinds of suggestions, including a compromise she doesn’t want to even consider: driving something not on the list of cars targeted by thieves.

“I just wanted that car, I worked my way up to having that car. This is honestly my dream car. I worked for 25 years of my life. 

“Now you're telling me because some punk kids steal my car I shouldn’t have a luxury item. That’s why this is so disappointing.”

Tips Toyota shares with police:

  • Install an on-board diagnostic (OBD) port lock for your vehicle’s OBD port.
  • Equip your vehicle with a GPS tracking device or, if they have one, simply enable/enroll in your automaker’s existing GPS tracking program. (On Lexus vehicles, this feature is called ‘stolen vehicle locator’ and is included in Lexus Enform Safety Connect.)
  • If it’s an option your automaker offers, turn off your key fob when not in use. (All Toyota and Lexus models equipped with a smart key offer this key fob feature. Toyota and Lexus customers who would like to activate it should consult the key fob section of their owner’s manual under “Battery Saving Function” for more information.) 
  • When not in use, place your vehicle’s key fob inside a faraday bag / pouch.
  • Use other devices to deter thefts (steering wheel lock, etc.)
  • If possible, park your vehicle within a locked / secure garage.
  • Ensure your unattended vehicle(s) are always locked and secure.
  • Never leave spare keys in your vehicle.