When Debra Fraser parked her car for the night, she didn’t realize it wouldn’t be there in the morning.

“It was July 12, it was a [2022] Toyota Highlander, and it was stolen at 5 a.m. in the morning,” she said. 

Fraser had left the car where she and her husband always park it: their laneway.

Early that morning, thieves broke the car’s window, went through the console and drove the vehicle away.

Fraser story is echoed by many others in Ottawa this year. According to Ottawa Police, about 1,200 car thefts have been reported this year so far, with 40 reported stolen in the last week of November alone. Barrhaven alone had 262 thefts up to Nov. 17, making it the car-theft hotspot in Ottawa and leaving residents looking for solutions.

Barrhaven West Coun. David Hill says he believes Barrhaven is a car-theft hotspot because it is affluent and is easily accessible to Highway 416, the 401 and onto Montreal.

“What I suspect is happening is organized crime from Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa are looking at areas in Ottawa with Barrhaven being a very easily accessible one," Hill said. "Organized crime target [these cars], steal them and then they get people to drive them down to the port of Montreal and get them out of the country right away.”

Some Barrhaven residents are adding additional safety measures to protect their vehicles. 

A map provided by the Ottawa Police Service shows areas where cars have been reported stolen from Jan. 1 to Nov. 17, 2023. (Ottawa Police Service/handout)

Ottawa police say luxury SUVs are being targeted, with newer models of Lexus, Honda and Toyota at a higher risk of being stolen.

Fraser says her car was targeted because it was a Toyota Highlander. A neighbour also had a Toyota Highlander stolen at 5 a.m. on July 12.

Wendy Baldin has lived in Barrhaven West for 18 years and describes her neighbourhood as relatively safe and quiet. The area has large single-family homes, wide roads and multi-car driveways.

“When I drilled a little deeper and saw the map and realized how much [car theft] is actually happening in our direction, in our quiet little part of Barrhaven, it shocked me,” Baldin said. 

Baldin says she has added safety measures to protect her 2022 Toyota Rav4.

“Before I realized what the statistics were, I was just leaving [the car] in the driveway. Now we are putting my car in the garage and then parking the older vehicles behind it so that somebody would have to play car Jenga to get mine out.”

Wendy Baldin, Barrhaven West resident

“Before I realized what the statistics were, I was just leaving [the car] in the driveway,” Baldin said. “Now we are putting my car in the garage and then parking the older vehicles behind it so that somebody would have to play car Jenga to get mine out.”

Fraser too has added security measures to her new car.

“We have a [steering wheel] club that we put on every night,” she said. “Every time my husband hears a noise in the middle of the night he's looking out the window thinking: ‘Is this one gonna get stolen?’ ”

Ottawa Police say the recovery rate of stolen cars is about 25 per cent. 

“[Police] basically told us that you're probably never going to see [your car] again,” Fraser said. 

She reported her car as stolen and and used GPS tracking to locate the car. 

Three weeks later, Fraser’s car was found in the port of Montreal being made ready to be shipped overseas.

According to a Toronto Star article, stolen cars are often shipped from Montreal to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, with vehicles ending up in countries such as Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and Morocco.

Fraser says there was significant damage to her car's window and console. The repairs should be complete by February.

Hill, meanwhile, had a public meeting with residents of the Stonebridge neighbourhood in Barrhaven, and met with Ottawa Police and the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers' Association to discuss solutions to the high number of car thefts.

He says a key component to stopping car theft is ensuring vehicle manufacturers are putting technology in place to make vehicles as impenetrable as possible.   

“If you had a 1980 Toyota Corolla, you'd have a metal key to start your vehicle,” he said. “[In] 2023, you get a high-end Lexus, Audi or Toyota or something that's a new vehicle, more often than not, it uses FOB [remote keyless] technology.”

Hill says he would like to see manufacturers put improved tracking technology in vehicles, shut down technology if the vehicle is stolen and add technology that is impenetrable.

"Technology is great and convenient for consumers when it is safe, but the challenge is that organized crime is able to manufacture or procure technology that allows them to defeat that and so they're able to therefore go ahead and steal the car,” Hill said.

Hill also says more police are needed in Barrhaven. He says he believes the increase in the 2024 Ottawa Police budget will allow for a higher police presence in the suburbs.

Meanwhile Ottawa Police advise residents to take steps to deter thieves. The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) recommends safety tips such as using a steering wheel lock, parking in a garage and putting a tracking device on the vehicle. 

Baldin says some Barrhaven residents are "unsettled" by the thefts and are changing their driving patterns.  

“I feel like people aren't feeling as safe as they used to,” she said. “My direct neighbour has changed all of her habits as well. She goes as far as to get dropped off when she goes to the mall, she won't leave her [Honda CRV] vehicle at the mall.”

Hill says a Barrhaven neighbourhood watch system is also being set up.

“A lot of my residents that have been affected by this are interested in [a] neighbourhood watch,” Hill said. “We're in the process of setting up some neighbourhood watch systems in some of those areas so [residents] can react appropriately."