Car thieves drive crime rate back up

'Seasoned' bad guys find ways to elude B.C. police after years of improvement on auto thefts

Car theft is making a comeback in B.C. after a decade of declines.

Car thefts surged 29 per cent across B.C. last year – reversing a decade-long decline – and that was one of the drivers behind a significant increase in the overall crime rate in the Lower Mainland.

The crime rate was up eight per cent in 2014 in Metro Vancouver and seven per cent in the Abbotsford-Mission census metropolitan area, according to Statistics Canada.

In addition to auto theft, B.C. also saw increases in thefts under $5,000, break-and-enters, and child pornography.

The property crimes and car thefts are often linked, according to Insp. Peter Jadis, officer in charge of the Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team (IMPACT).

“The people that we’re dealing with are seasoned criminals,” Jadis said.

“Usually when we do apprehend them there’s evidence of other crimes being committed – identify theft, fraud, drug dealing – and they’re using the vehicles for transportation and to facilitate these different crimes.”

RELATED:Police probe reveals ‘disturbing’ online trade in child porn in B.C.

Jadis said Canada Post’s investigators believe many mail box break-ins are done via stolen cars, which are often found with stolen mail inside.

He said the perpetrators are often better organized than would appear from Bait Car videos of the past depicting unhinged thieves just prior to arrest.

“They’ll hit mailboxes multiple times and build profiles,” Jadis said of identity thieves.

“Your mail will be stolen for a few weeks and then a year down the road all of a sudden there’s a new identity that someone’s using and people see their credit ratings have gone through the floor.”

Last year’s spike in car thefts followed a decline from 2003 to 2013 due to a combination of better car security technology, intelligence-led policing, the tracking of prolific criminals and the use of the Bait Car program to catch thieves in the act.

The recent resurgence of the problem has continued this year, with a 40 per cent increase in arrests so far for theft of or theft from vehicles, Jadis said.

Part of the problem is that criminals have been adjusting their tactics to thwart police, often ditching stolen vehicles faster.

“We’re seeing offenders rotating the vehicle a bit more. In the past they’d keep them 10 to 14 days, but we’re seeing some of them now rotating the vehicles every three or four days.”

Thieves are increasingly stealing cars by first stealing their keys.

Keys can disappear from your clothes in a locker at a gym or rec centre, or from inside your house, Jadis said.

Often, he said, a thief will break into a vehicle that has a garage door opener, use it to get into the home, then search for a spare pair of car keys, along with anything else that can be stolen.

Or, if the car is stolen elsewhere, they can use the insurance papers to get the address and use the garage door opener to enter and loot the home.

Jadis said IMPACT officers are developing a new model to strategically target suspects known to them who are likely to be involved in auto crime.

Another lesser known weapon in the policing arsenal against car thieves is the automated licence plate detection systems B.C. RCMP have mounted in some police cars in the Lower Mainland.

They scan the licence plates of passing cars at a rapid rate against a database and can quickly detect one that’s been reported stolen.

Jadis said it’s an “excellent tool.”

But even that method is not foolproof.

Thieves who steal a vehicle often then look for a similar vehicle and switch licence plates with it, he said.

The unsuspecting driver whose plate has been pilfered doesn’t always spot the change because “you don’t always look at your licence plate.”

Meanwhile, the crook roams the roads undetected.

But if police cameras scan the unsuspecting driver, whose car now bears the plate of a stolen car, he’s in for a big surprise – IMPACT officers will soon be closing in to make an arrest.

“That’s happened a few times, we just have to be very careful,” Jadis said.

Violent crime down in B.C.

While car thefts and other property crime climbed in 2014, violent crime fell eight per cent in B.C., according to new national statistics.

That was despite 88 homicides across the province, a 15 per cent increase.

The overall B.C. crime rate was little changed, up one per cent.

Thefts under $5,000 were up eight per cent, fraud was up 11 per cent, and property crime of all types rose seven per cent.

Drug violations were down 9.7 per cent and charges for marijuana production or trafficking plunged 45 per cent.

Statistics Canada also posted new crime severity index rankings of major populated centres. The measurement also includes traffic offences and federal violations not included in the crime rate.

Metro Vancouver area had a crime severity index of 96.7 – the worst in B.C. and much higher than the national average of 66.7.

Only two cities had a higher ranking of crime severity – Regina at  102.8 and Saskatoon at 109.7.

The crime severity index was 87.9 in Kelowna, 84.4 in Abbotsford-Mission and 62.8 in Victoria.

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