Auto Thefts Spike in Canada in Cold Weather

By Gary Hilson
Black Subaru Outback rear view on snowy forest road in heavy winter conditions

Wintertime in Canada means skating, skiing, and eating beaver tails on the Rideau Canal in February. It also means auto theft increases, and that problem is compounded by the pandemic.

As more people stay home due to public health restrictions and work remotely rather than commute to an office, unattended vehicles parked on streets and driveways became easy targets for opportunistic thieves as early as the spring.

But even without COVID-19 making conditions ripe for automobile theft, winter is always a rough time for car owners thanks to what is called “warm-up” theft. These thefts can happen anywhere — your driveway, parking and lots and gas stations — all because no one likes getting into a frigid car. That makes it easier for a thief to swipe your vehicle when it’s unlocked and running.

Car thieves are willing to weather the cold

When temperatures drop, more cars get stolen. In Ontario’s York Region, local police say as about 30 to 40 cars are stolen a year due to warm-up theft. The vehicle types range from high-end to low-end in value, whether they’re on the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s most stolen vehicles list or not.

Reported warm-up thefts in Canada include one instance in Mississauga when a thief didn’t realize there was a baby was in the back seat of a vehicle idling at gas station in December 2014. More recently, in 2019, Edmonton police had received about 250 reports of stolen vehicles that were left idling outside of a home, business, or workplace by November. That’s an average of five and six thefts a week, according to police, which reported as many as 395 idling vehicles stolen in Edmonton in 2018.

Drivers need to think twice when warming up their cars unattended or leaving a vehicle running to pop into a convenience store. Most of these thefts occur November through to February.

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Tips to avoid warm-up theft

So, what’s the solution to avoiding warm-up theft? Unless you’re a polar bear, you’re not going to like it. Car thieves know drivers are going to let their guard down in the winter, which means you need to resist the urge to leave you car running in the driveway to warm it up. Remember, warm-up thefts are a crime of opportunity. Here are a few tips to prevent your wheels from being stolen:

  • Never leave your car running and unattended. Your desire to be toasty and warm when you pull out of the driveway means a thief doesn’t even have to hotwire your car. All it takes is for you to go inside for a minute or two for a grateful thief to slide into the front seat and disappear with your ride.
  • Never leave your valuable items in your car. Or at least, not in plain view. A thief looking for valuables in an unlocked, idling car may decide to take the vehicle, even if that wasn’t their initial ambition.
  • Use a remote car starter. If you’re able, start your vehicle remotely while still locked so you can warm it up safely — a thief may be less likely to make the effort to steal it if they have to break into it. If you don’t have that option, start the car with one set of keys and lock it with your spare set.
  • Get seat warmers. Rather than risking a warm-up theft, invest in seat warmers that can quickly raise your temperature so that even if you leave the driveway in a cold car, you’ll be hot to trot by the time you hit your first intersection.
  • Keep your vehicle close. If you must leave your car running while not in the driver’s seat, park it as close to where you are as possible, and keep it in your line of sight when you go inside to pay for gas or grab some snacks.
  • Shine a light on potential thieves. Installing a motion activated light in your driveway can alert you to activity and even spook a potential thief. Better still, there are now plenty of affordable, internet-connected security cameras that can send you an alert to your smartphone, complete with video footage.

Regardless of the season, warning devices are always a helpful deterrent as they let thieves know your vehicle is protected. Steering wheel locks and immobilizing devices that cut off the current to the starter motor, ignition switch, and the fuel pump are both effective for preventing auto theft, while GPS and wireless capabilities can make it easier to recover a stolen car.

Remember that how your car is stolen can affect your car insurance rate. If you don’t take steps to keep it secure, your insurance provider isn’t going to be too sympathetic. But employing anti-theft devices and being careful if you need to warm-up your vehicle before you hit the road can make all the difference.