04/19/2012 05:26 EDT | Updated 06/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Technology Spurs Sharp Drop In Car Thefts

Ontario has seen a significant drop in car thefts in recent years, thanks largely to improved technology that makes it almost impossible to steal a vehicle without its key.

In 2010 a total of 4,479 cars were stolen in Toronto, that's down 65 per cent from 1999 when 12,600 cars went missing.

Toronto police Insp. Mark Barkley told CBC News that one invention — the vehicle immobilizer — is largely to thank for the drop in thefts.

Immobilizers, which are now required on all vehicles sold in Canada since September 2007, have a chip in the key that allows the vehicle's ignition system to operate. Many older vehicles built before the introduction of immobilizers could be started by prying the ignition with a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, even a butter knife.

That meant joy-riding teens were responsible for a large percentage of car thefts. Many of those thefts led to dangerous police chases and catastrophic crashes.

“It accounted for very high amounts of stolen vehicles out there,” said Barkley. "Young people behind the wheel of a stolen car, they got very excited and unfortunately, we had a lot of death and destruction."

"Now if you don't have the key, all the butter knives in the world wouldn't help [potential thieves]. By eliminating the inexperienced driver, I have no question that lives have been saved."

Global positioning systems have also hindered car thieves.

On Wednesday, Toronto police managed to track a BMV that was stolen from a car dealership in the United States. The thief pulled into a west-end motel for some rest, not realizing the car was still sending a GPS signal. The car, and the thief, were an easy catch for police.

Organized theft rings continue to operate

Det. Sgt. Sam Cosentino worked in Toronto’s auto squad for five years. He said while vehicle immobilizers and GPS systems have helped take amateur thieves out of the equation, they haven't eliminated vehicle theft entirely.

"There is still a very real and very active organized crime component in vehicle thefts,” he said.

He said the professional car thieves tend to target more expensive vehicles and, in a trend that concerns police, many luxury cars are stolen by thieves who break into houses to get the keys.

Many vehicles stolen in the Toronto area are shipped overseas or re-sold to unsuspecting buyers in Canada, Cosentino said.

He offered the following tips to ensure used car buyers don’t wind up buying a stolen vehicle:

- Ask for identification from the vendor to ensure you know who you're buying from.

- Ensure the vendor’s name is on the ownership papers, which you should ask to see.

- Make sure you register the vehicle yourself. Don't let anyone else do it for you.

- Never pay cash for a vehicle.