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An aerial view of a building with a yard full of car parts and vehicles in states of disrepair.

Plenty of tactics to catch auto thieves

When police uncover a chop shop, the Alberta RCMP's Auto Theft Unit plays a vital role in helping identify stolen vehicles. Credit: RCMP


A stolen vehicle causes more than a headache. Victims can be left without transportation, with missed appointments and with insurance bills. And perpetrators can use the stolen cars during other crimes.

In 2019, about 27 per cent of Canada's reported motor vehicle thefts happened in Alberta, according to Statistics Canada. That year, more than 20,000 cars were reported stolen in the province.

But the Alberta RCMP's Auto Theft Unit works to track them down.

"There's different types of auto thefts. We see quick joyrides, vehicles stolen for the commission of another crime, and vehicles parted out or sold," says Cst. Jason Young, who works with the auto theft team.

While less common, the team has seen instances of organized criminal groups stealing cars to be shipped overseas for a profit.

Team tactics

The unit traces vehicle identification numbers (VINs), studies vehicle makes and models, and looks for anomalies in the provincial vehicle registration system.

Criminals may take steps to try to hide the fact a vehicle is stolen by removing VINs, cloning VINs to make a vehicle appear legitimate, and swapping parts with other stolen vehicles. Nevertheless, the team has techniques to avoid being tricked.

"Some are quite sophisticated in the way that they alter VINs," says Cst. Ken Kerby, an investigator with the unit. "We have specialized training to identify a vehicle's true identity with secondary identifiers and other methods if those are attacked as well."

The unit also uses bait cars to catch prolific vehicle thieves in the act. Using assets ranging from cars and trucks to snowmobiles and heavy equipment, they follow crime trends and information from detachments to set up the operation.

"It's been a great tool in targeting the prolific property offenders," says Young, who's spent a decade with the unit. "Detachments can give us a call and we can work together on a plan to address the situation."

Strategic use of the bait vehicles, which are owned by police and intended to be stolen or broken into, act as a deterrent and can collect high-quality evidence when charging someone with auto theft.

"In many cases, the offenders end up taking the bait vehicle and officers are able to apprehend them successfully," says Young.

Helping hands

The skilled officers, who are based in Edmonton and Airdrie, Alta., support RCMP detachments and municipal police agencies throughout the province.

"Detachments or other specialized units may be investigating something that's not auto-theft based, but have stolen cars as a component and we can help," says Kerby.

If vehicles need identifying, if judicial authorizations need drafting or if investigators find a chop shop where stolen vehicles have parts removed to hide their origins, the Auto Theft Unit can provide support.

Cst. Gregg Hunt, who's been with the team since 2015, has a knack for identifying vehicles seen in surveillance photos and videos.

When surveillance video captures a car during another crime, such as a robbery or homicide, he can help determine its year, make and model so that investigators can develop leads and identify potential suspects.

"We all have a forte and this is mine," says Hunt, adding that another member with the unit was a certified mechanic before joining the RCMP, bringing valuable knowledge to the team.

Overall, the team hopes to deter future car thieves and prevent others from becoming victims.

"Once you've been victimized, that never leaves you." says Young, who was a victim of auto theft in the past.

To help protect yourself and your vehicle, Young has these tips:

  • Always lock your car.
  • Remove all valuables every time you leave your car.
  • Have a working alarm system.
  • Install a GPS tracker in the event your car is stolen.
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