Dealers across Canada are taking measures to combat theft, whether it’s locking customer cars inside at night, strategically parking vehicles to deter catalytic-converter theft or installing expensive camera systems to assist security staff.
At the Scottsville Group, which owns three stores in Red Deer, Alta., and one in Cranbrook, B.C., Dealer Principal Garrett Scott said theft was a $75,000-a-year problem until his new security protocols were in place.
Over the past five years, Scott has been installing in all his Red Deer lots a high-tech camera system that detects motion and directs the resulting video to a security guard stationed in a car. The system allows the guard to dismiss inconsequential motion, such as a fluttering shopping bag, but also allows the guard to drive quickly to the scene should an actual interloper be detected.
“The cameras themselves were not an effective deterrent,” Scott said. “But since our security guard had that kind of tool, we have had very few incidents.”
Scott estimated that the system cost $500,000 by the time it was complete.
Incidents have been few, he said, restricted to occasional smash-and-grab thefts from customer vehicles. “We spend good money on security,” Scott said, “so it’s paying off.”
A prime loss was fuel, he said. “They would lay under a vehicle, drill a hole in the tank and then leave.”
When confronted, he said, trespassers have tried all sorts of excuses, such as being an employee attempting to work after hours or trying to convince the security guard that they themselves are performing security duties.
At Crosby Automotive Group, which owns four dealerships in southern Ontario, catalytic-converter thefts have been a problem, said Dealer Principal Michael Crosby. He estimates that over four years, he has lost $50,000 to $60,000 to converter thieves.
“It’s been going back probably four or five years,” he said. “It’s certainly not anything that’s new. It’s escalated in the last two or three years.”
Insurance companies are sounding the alarm. In June, Allstate Insurance Co. of Canada reported that in 2022, claims increased 60 per cent over 2021 and were up 1,710 per cent since 2018. In Winnipeg, police reported 351 thefts in April 2022 alone, while Calgary police reported 3,174 thefts from January to November of 2022.
It’s a problem that has captured the attention of the Motor Vehicle Retailers of Ontario, which is making recommendations to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.
“Damaged cars needing repairs and the resultant higher insurance premiums are becoming major problems for new-car retailers,” said Frank Notte, director of government relations at the Motor Vehicle Retailers. “We believe that working together with government, law enforcement and other auto sector stakeholders can put an end to this costly crime that affects everyone.”
Catalytic converters are in demand because the precious metals within — palladium, platinum and rhodium — are valuable.
Steps that Crosby has taken to help mitigate the risk include beefing up security patrols. And since the vehicles most often hit are trucks and SUVs that are easier to slide under, he’ll park sedans on each side of those vehicles to at least make access more difficult.
Audis are the most theft-resistant, Crosby said, as they typically have underchassis covers that make it difficult to get to the catalytic converter. Aside from Audi of Kitchener-Waterloo, he operates Crosby Volkswagen in Kitchener, Volkswagen Waterloo in Waterloo and Listowel Honda in Listowel.
Crosby estimates the cost of replacing a converter starts with the price of the converter itself, ranging from about $800 to $1,500, not including labour. But since the thieves aren’t exactly meticulous, he said, there’s often peripheral damage that requires repair or parts replacement.
While it’s a big enough problem when it hits his inventory, Crosby is careful to ensure that his customers aren’t targeted when their cars are in overnight for service. Those vehicles are parked inside.
“It’s just not the kind of news you want to be sharing with customers,” he said.
The worst situations, he said, occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he would have a new car ready to sell but then discovered it needed a catalytic converter, which was sometimes back-ordered for months.
Repairs have become quicker since parts supplies have begun to stabilize since the pandemic, Crosby said.
He thinks that as inventory levels begin to normalize, the thefts could grow.
“It could become a larger issue as more vehicles become available and dealers have more sitting on their lot,” he said.