KELOWNA, B.C. – “It was unreal. We lost so many cars over the last six months that we actually lost track of how many were taken.”
Anthony Lunelli, president of the New Car Dealers Association of Kelowna, was talking about a plague of new car thefts from dealerships throughout the B.C. city in recent months.
It started at the first of the year and didn’t end until mid-August when local dealers were forced to add security systems, change drop-off systems and add night security.
Lunelli estimated his own company, Anthony’s Subaru, lost six or seven cars.
“They liked nicer cars and took over $1 million in product from us including one car valued at over $85,000.”
The thieves were brazen in how they went about their business. One arrived on a low-deck skateboard he used as a creeper to slide under cars. He used a backpack full of tools and worked with several lights attached to his clothes so he could see what he was doing, he said.
Audi Kelowna’s Ryan Wicks explained that sometimes the thieves were so quick to take advantage of a situation he wasn’t even aware a vehicle had been stolen.
“We had a one instance when a customer’s car was towed in after hours on a Friday night. The keys were dropped into our key drop slot and the vehicle left on the lot. The thieves fished the keys out and took off with the car, but they didn’t realize the car wasn’t working and it quit running in short order. They abandoned it in the parking lot of a nearby coffee shop,” Wicks said.
“The first we heard about the car was when the owner called to arrange for the repairs on Monday. Meanwhile, the coffee shop owner where we go for coffee called me to ask if we were missing a blue S5. The plates were missing and the car was dirty and had been tossed.”
Wicks said he called the RCMP who contacted the client and filled out a report. But before they could recover the car, the thief returned to the coffee shop and stole it again. The missing car disappeared for two-to-three more weeks during which time it made late-night appearances in the security videos at another dealership.
The Audi surfaced again several weeks later when Wicks himself spotted it in the lot of the local Costco. He said he called the Mounties and used his own SUV to block the missing car while he waited for the RCMP to show up.
“There is probably more than one group working here. We have the pros that come in, take what they want and don’t do any further damage. One well-organized group arrived with hydraulic jacks and cinder blocks to steal an expensive set of wheels [valued at around $14,000] without hurting the car. Others are not so gentle.”
Wicks talked about bandits who used big screwdrivers to pry open door locks sometimes doing thousands of dollars in damage. He also described how others crawled under cars to puncture gas tanks to drain the fuel.
“I think we’ve got more than one gang working in the area plus some lone wolves. The pro’s target vehicles without damaging them, but there are a group of young, twenty-something men who just break in and take the cars for joy rides then trashing them before they’re abandoned.”
Though the rash of thefts this year has been disturbing, it isn’t exactly new. Seven people were charged in late 2015 after Kelowna RCMP broke up an alleged auto theft ring.
Police said at the time they had recovered roughly $240,000 worth of vehicles stolen from throughout the Okanagan Valley and beyond.
Both dealers said the situation improved this year when dealerships began raising the level of security.
One weak point was the drop box for keys as thieves were able to fish keys out of the boxes using wire pushed through the slot.
One store told Canadian AutoWorld it installed four different versions of the lock boxes until finally finding one that could not be defeated. He said thieves then simply hooked up a chain and pulled the entire unit out of the wall. Despite making off with the box, they still couldn’t open it to retrieve the keys.
Overnight security guards have also helped the situation.