The definitive guide to protecting your vehicle from theft

Written by Seamus McKale

Reviewed by Daniel Mirkovic

Updated June 20, 2024 | Published May 27, 2024

Vehicle theft in Canada, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, has become a major issue. Between 2021 and 2023, vehicle theft in Ontario increased by 48.2% and in Quebec by a whopping 57.9%. Across Canada, a vehicle gets stolen every five minutes.1 Vehicle theft cost insurers in Canada $1.5 billion in 2023 — an increase of 254% from 2018.2 Rising insurance claim costs mean higher insurance prices for everyone.

So obviously, it’s a big problem.

Fortunately, you can protect your vehicle from theft. In this article, we’ll explain some of the methods thieves use to steal vehicles and how you can take action to prevent vehicle theft.

Thumbnail showing the arms of a thief using a screwdriver to break a vehicle's door lock

The important points

  • Vehicle theft has increased dramatically in Canada over the past few years, especially in Quebec and Ontario.
  • The best way to protect your vehicle from theft is by adopting many layers of security, rather than relying on any one anti-theft measure.
  • Car insurance covers vehicle theft, provided the owner purchased the appropriate optional coverage beforehand.

How do thieves steal cars?

To prevent your car from getting stolen, it’s important to understand how car thieves operate. From high-tech relay attacks to low-tech hijackings, car thieves have many techniques.

We won’t get too much into smash-and-grab thefts, as everyone can imagine how those work. Thieves do steal cars when the owners simply leave the keys inside, whether they wanted to leave the heat on for a minute, or they simply forgot to take the keys with them. Carjackings are another brute force method that thieves use to steal cars.

We’ll talk more about defending against these and other theft methods soon. First, a look at the high-tech methods that thieves use to steal modern, tech-loaded vehicles.

Relay attacks

You may have noticed that vehicles don’t have physical keys anymore. Instead, keyless cars have a key fob that transmits a unique radio signal. A receiver inside the car detects this signal when the fob is nearby, unlocking the doors and disabling the engine immobilizer. Engine immobilizers prevent the engine from starting without the key present. They’ve been mandatory on vehicles manufactured in Canada since 2007.3

A common method for stealing keyless cars is known as a relay attack.

Thieves use a device that detects the radio signal broadcast from the key fob and copies it, retransmitting it to the car. Often, this type of theft takes place while a vehicle is parked at home. One thief stands near the house, trying to catch the signal of the key fob stored somewhere inside. The other thief stands near the car, ready to hop in and drive away as soon as they’re able to copy the signal and send it to the car.

Onboard diagnostic port attacks

The onboard diagnostic (OBD) port is a plugin inside every vehicle. It allows a mechanic to connect to the vehicle’s onboard computer to view the status of various systems. When the check engine light comes on, connecting a reader to the OBD port will show an error code pointing to the source of the issue.

OBD ports are typically located underneath the steering column, somewhere above the pedals. They look like this:

An on-board diagnostic port as it appears underneath the dashboard of a vehicle
Source, under license CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED

It’s possible to use the OBD port to reprogram the vehicle’s computer in various ways, too. Thieves can use the OBD port to copy or reprogram the key fob’s unique code, granting them full access to the car.

This method does require the thief to get inside the car, but a broken window is a small price to pay in exchange for stealing the whole car.

Controller area network bus attacks

The controller area network (CAN) bus is part of the electronic system within the car. Basically, it lets various components of the vehicle communicate with one another. By tapping into this system, car thieves can access the vehicle’s computer and copy the unique wireless key code onto a blank key fob, gaining access to the vehicle.

In some cases, it’s possible for a thief to access the CAN bus through the headlight — meaning they don’t even need to break into the vehicle.

12 car theft prevention tips

Now that you know how car thieves work, how can you stop them from stealing your car?

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution. If there were, vehicle theft rates wouldn’t be skyrocketing. The best defense against vehicle thieves is a concept known as layered protection. No single anti-theft measure will stop a thief. But if you make it as inconvenient as possible for them with many defenses working together, they may pass up your car for an easier target.

From the following list of car theft prevention tips, try to implement as many as possible.

1. Keep the doors locked and the windows closed

Let’s start with the absolute basics: don’t leave your vehicle unlocked, and don’t leave the windows open when you’re not in it. Many vehicle thefts are crimes of opportunity, with thieves simply waiting for an easy target. If they can get inside without breaking a window (and causing a scene) it makes the whole process easier.

2. Don’t leave the keys inside (or nearby)

It should go without saying that you never leave your vehicle unattended with the keys inside. But, it’s also important not to leave spare keys inside the wheel well, or anywhere else on the car or outside your house — thieves know about these hiding places.

At home, keep your key fobs as far away from the car as possible to reduce the ease of relay attacks. Keep them away from the edges of the house, too.

3. Keep your keys secure

In the same vein, consider purchasing a faraday box or pouch (also known as an RFID blocker). Keep your key fobs inside this box when they’re at home. Faraday boxes block radio signals, meaning thieves won’t be able to copy the fob’s signal for a relay attack.

Just be aware that there are many subpar RFID blockers on the market. When you buy one, you can test it by placing your cell phone inside and calling it. If the call goes through, the box isn’t blocking radio signals.

4. Park securely

Wherever possible, park your vehicle in a secure garage or a fenced-in area. Try to park in well-lit areas, too. At home, if you don’t have the option to park in a garage, install motion-sensitive security lighting in the driveway. Security cameras aren’t a bad idea either.

If you have multiple cars, use the less valuable cars to block in the more valuable ones.

5. Use the parking brake

Sometimes, car thieves simply roll up with a tow truck and haul target cars away. Engaging the parking brake any time the car is parked adds an extra annoyance they have to overcome before they can tow a vehicle away. While you’re at it, turn the wheels all the way to one side whenever you park, too.

6. Protect the VIN

The vehicle identification number (VIN) is a unique way to identify individual vehicles. Make sure you have copies of each vehicle’s VIN saved somewhere safe, just in case. If the vehicle is stolen, it’s easier to identify if you can provide the VIN to police.

Make sure the vehicle’s VIN is clearly visible and undamaged, too — it’s important that someone outside the car can read the number.

7. Record unique identifiers

In addition to keeping a copy of your vehicle’s VIN, keep a record of every possible identifier just in case the vehicle is stolen. Know the make, model, year, and trim level, for example, as well as the license plate number.

If your car has any unique decals or visible damage, these details can also help identify it.

Police also suggest dropping a business card inside the door panels to help police identify the owner if the vehicle is stolen and later recovered.4

8. Install a tracking system

Tracking systems both deter theft and increase the chances of recovering the vehicle if it is stolen. Like many anti-theft measures, tracking systems are not created equal. While simple devices like Apple AirTags can track the car, they’re easy to locate and disable.

Much more effective are systems like Tag. The Tag system places multiple hard-to-locate transmitters throughout the vehicle, including tiny RFID devices on specific parts that are commonly stolen.

9. Use a steering wheel lock

Steering wheel locks are simple, relatively affordable devices. On their own they may not deter a thief, but in combination with other measures they’re worth the price. Just make sure to get a quality lock, made of metal and not plastic.

You can also get pedal locks, which prevent the gas or brake pedals from being used.

10. Install an alarm system

Most vehicles have some form of built-in alarm, but adding an aftermarket alarm system can help deter thieves and may be harder to disable than the factory system.

11. Add a kill switch

A kill switch is installed inside the car, usually in a hard-to-find location. When the switch is off, the vehicle won’t start — kill switches introduce physical disruptions into the vehicle’s electrical system that no level of hacking can overcome.

Just be aware that kill switches can introduce their own issues, and can void the vehicle’s warranty.

12. Buy an OBD port lock

To prevent car thieves from accessing the vehicle’s OBD port, buy an onboard diagnostic port lock. These simple devices block access to the port.

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What to do if your car is stolen

If you happen upon a theft in progress, do not put yourself in harm’s way trying to stop the thieves. Vehicles can be replaced, but you can’t.

If you find your vehicle missing, there are several things you need to do as soon as possible.

  1. Call police and file a report. Have your vehicle’s information ready when you call (VIN, plate number, and descriptors). If you’re actively witnessing the theft, you can call 9-1-1, as it’s a crime in progress. Otherwise, call the non-emergency line. If there was anything personal and important in the car (ID cards, credit cards, house keys, etc.) make sure you mention these as well. If that’s the case, contact the authorities who issued the IDs, and, in the case of house keys, hire a locksmith to re-key your house ASAP.
  2. Contact your insurance provider. Report the theft to your car insurance provider online or by phone. Even if you don’t have theft coverage, they still need to know about it. If you do have coverage, your adjuster will help guide you through what needs to be done, including arranging for a rental car if you’re eligible. They’ll likely ask for a police report number, as well as any other information about the theft that you can provide.

At this point, all you can do is wait. Assuming your vehicle gets found, police will notify you. Unfortunately, that’s not a given. The recovery rate for stolen vehicles in Canada in 2023 was only 54% — and just 37% and 44% in Quebec and Ontario, respectively.1

If your vehicle isn’t found, the next step would be proceeding with your car insurance claim (if you have theft coverage).

Insurance coverage for stolen cars

Fortunately, car insurance can help you out if your car’s been stolen. But, theft coverage is optional — if you didn’t have it on your policy prior to the theft, your insurance won’t cover the loss.

Theft coverage is available through several different optional car insurance coverages (all of which Square One offers):

If you added any of these coverages to your policy, you would have coverage when your vehicle gets stolen. If that’s the case, you can open an insurance claim. The process depends on whether your stolen car reappears or not:

If your vehicle is recovered

When you make an insurance claim for a stolen car, most insurance providers will impose a waiting period before offering a settlement, just in case the car gets recovered. Often, this is around 30 days.

During that time, you’d have coverage for replacement transportation, like a rental car. However, only up to your policy’s limit for such coverage. And, you’d have to pay a deductible as well.

If police do recover your vehicle, chances are it won’t be in the same condition as it was before being stolen. Fortunately, if you have coverage for theft, you also have coverage for attempted theft — meaning your policy would cover the repair of damage caused by the thieves. Again, you’d have to pay the applicable deductible.

If your vehicle is not recovered

If your insurer’s waiting period ends and no one’s located your stolen car, they would offer you a settlement for the vehicle. Most of the time, the settlement will be equivalent to the vehicle’s actual cash value immediately prior to the theft. Basically, a calculation of what it would have been worth on the open market at that time.

For example, if you originally bought your car for $25,000 but it’d only be worth $10,000 at the time of the theft, you’ll receive a settlement of $10,000 (minus your deductible).

You would receive the settlement as a cash payment, which you can put towards replacing your stolen car (if you want).

The only exception is if you had an optional endorsement like OPCF 43 in Ontario or QEF 43 (A-F) in Quebec. These endorsements remove depreciation from the settlement, covering the vehicle for its full replacement value. Only new vehicles that are leased or financed are eligible for this type of coverage.

With this coverage, instead of a cash value settlement, your insurer would pay the lowest of the following amounts:

  • The original purchase price of the vehicle
  • The cost of replacing the vehicle with a new one of a similar make and model
  • The manufacturer’s suggested retail price of the stolen car

If you didn’t have any theft coverage in place at the time of the theft, unfortunately, you would have to replace your stolen car entirely out of pocket.

Commonly asked questions

What is the most stolen car in Canada?

As of 2022, the vehicle model with the most recorded thefts was the Honda CR-V, most commonly the 2020 model year.5 Going by theft frequency, meaning the percentage of all insured vehicles that were stolen, the Land Rover Range Rover was the most common target, with a theft rate of 3.9%.6

Trucks and SUVs account for the most stolen vehicles. Generally, car thieves prefer to target late-model, high-value vehicles.

Does insurance cover car theft in Canada?

Car insurance will cover vehicle theft in Canada, as long as the policyholder purchased one of three optional coverages: comprehensive, all perils, or specified perils. Without these, there is no coverage for theft under a car insurance policy.

Do steering wheel locks really prevent theft?

On their own, steering wheel locks won’t prevent a thief from stealing a vehicle. However, they may be a deterrent to stop a thief from trying in the first place. Steering wheel locks are best used alongside other theft prevention methods like alarms, tracking systems, and secure parking.

What is Canada doing about vehicle theft?

In May 2024, the Government of Canada announced the National Action Plan on Combatting Auto Theft. This plan has a broad scope, focused on dealing with the organized crime groups that have been a major factor behind recent increases in vehicle theft. The plan proposes changes to the Criminal Code, increased information sharing between different law enforcement agencies, and increased intervention in stolen vehicles being shipped overseas.7

Sources

  1. Équité Association. “2023 Auto Theft Trend Report.” equiteassociation.com, Feb. 2024, assets-global.website-files.com/614f811f9a079b223c5d23ab/65c12aa99124b66e078fe7d6_E%CC%81quite%CC%81%20Association%20-%202023%20Auto%20Theft%20Trend%20Report%20-%20EN.pdf.
  2. Insurance Bureau of Canada. “New data shows severity of Canada’s worsening auto theft crisis – Theft insurance claims top $1.5 billion in 2023.” Insurance Bureau of Canada, 16 May, 2024, ibc.ca/news-insights/news/new-data-shows-severity-of-canada-s-worsening-auto-theft-crisis.
  3. CBC News. “Anti-theft device now mandatory in Canadian-made vehicles.” CBC News, 1 Sep. 2007, ibc.ca/news-insights/news/new-data-shows-severity-of-canada-s-worsening-auto-theft-crisis>cbc.ca/news/canada/anti-theft-device-now-mandatory-in-canadian-made-vehicles-1.677141.
  4. Halton Police. “Vehicle Theft Prevention Tips.” Halton Police, ibc.ca/news-insights/news/new-data-shows-severity-of-canada-s-worsening-auto-theft-crisis>haltonpolice.ca/en/staying-safe/vehicle-theft-prevention-tips.aspx. Accessed 16 May 2024.
  5. Équité Association. “Top 10 Most Stolen Vehicles.” equiteassociation.com, www.equiteassociation.com/top-10-most-stolen-vehicles. Accessed 16 May 2024.
  6. Équité Association. “Top 10 Most Stolen Vehicles – Ranking by Theft Frequency.” equiteassociation.com, www.equiteassociation.com/top-10-most-stolen-vehicles/theft-frequency. Accessed 16 May 2024.
  7. Public Safety Canada. “Government of Canada unveils National Action Plan on Combatting Auto Theft.” Public Safety Canada, 20 May, 2024, canada.ca/en/public-safety-canada/news/2024/05/government-of-canada-unveils-national-action-plan-on-combatting-auto-theft.html.

Want to learn more? Visit our Car insurance resource centre for dozens of helpful articles to guide you through the complexities of car insurance. Or, get an online quote in under 5 minutes and find out how affordable personalized car insurance can be.

About the expert: Daniel Mirkovic

A co-founder of Square One with 25 years of experience in the insurance industry, Daniel was previously vice president of the insurance and travel divisions at the British Columbia Automobile Association. Daniel has a bachelor of commerce and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. He holds a Canadian Accredited Insurance Broker (CAIB) designation and a general insurance license level 3 in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

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