Car theft investigations are all too common for the officers who work with the Major Crime Unit at the Toronto Police Service’s 53 Division.

But back in February, what appeared to be a simple case of car theft turned out to be anything but a simple investigation, Toronto Police Det. Dan Kraehling told on Friday.

Earlier this week, Toronto police said investigators had learned that employees at ServiceOntario were responsible for trafficking information on hundreds of drivers in the province to suspects involved in an auto theft ring in the GTA.

The investigation, dubbed Project Safari, led to the arrest of seven people, including three employees of ServiceOntario. The seven suspects face a combined 73 charges, including fraud over $5,000, tampering with a vehicle identification number, breach of trust by a public officer, and trafficking in identity information.

“A couple of uniformed officers brought to our attention these three individuals that were found in a stolen car, and while that's normally something we would just sort of deal with and not go too much further, in this case, they had a lot of tools in their possession that are commonly used to steal motor vehicles,” Kraehling said.

“We sort of geared up to investigate what we believed was just a group of auto thieves and then we started seeing indications in our checks that there may be a deeper connection to members of ServiceOntario.”

Police previously said that the employees trafficked the Ministry of Transportation’s driving and vehicle data, including hundreds of addresses, to the car thieves.

According to police, members of the auto theft ring used that information to steal vehicles and link them to fraudulent vehicle registration numbers in a process known as re-VINing. Those fake VINs were also allegedly provided by the ServiceOntario employees.

The stolen cars were then sold domestically to unsuspecting buyers as used vehicles or used to commit other crimes, investigators allege.

Police said 25 search warrants were carried out at residences, commercial garages, and ServiceOntario locations between July and October. Roughly $1.5 million in cash and luxury vehicles were seized as a result, investigators said.

“This was by far the largest scale project that we took on, as our office is fairly small,” Kraehling said Friday.

He noted that while the results achieved during the investigation were good, he feels like police have only really “scratched the surface” of the criminality surrounding vehicle thefts.

“There's definitely an economy and sort of an infrastructure that's been established over the past few years to sort of deal with this angle of criminality,” he said.

When stolen vehicles are re-VINed, “a lot of it hinges on the paperwork,” Kraehling said.

“If you're going to have a re-VINed vehicle, it goes a long way to have documents that support its legitimacy,” he said.

“And in this case… ServiceOntario operators providing fake documents for these vehicles, that is something that really furthers that side of the re-VINing because once you have a forged registration, for example, a buyer is more likely to be unaware that there's something wrong.”

He noted that even for officers trained in this type of crime, it can be difficult to spot a forged document.

“It's difficult at first glance to sort of tell what's a forged document versus a legitimate (one), especially if it has been printed from a ServiceOntario branch.”

He said once re-VINed vehicles have a paper trail, it opens up possibilities for what thieves can do with the cars.

“Once you have the documentation, now you can sell it to a used car dealer or sell it as a private sale, or whatever your mind's desire to do with that vehicle is at that point because it looks and seems legitimate,” Kraehling said.

He said that while the documentation may look legitimate, there are other ways for buyers to tell if a vehicle is above board.

“When you're considering purchasing a vehicle, look at vehicle history reports via Carfax or some other medium that offers them… everything should sort of make sense from a chronological perspective,” Kraehling said.

“Legitimate garages will flag when vehicles are serviced and the odometer reading… if the odometer goes from say 100,000 to 50,000, well, that should never happen.”

Paint colour changes on new luxury vehicles can also indicate that something isn’t right about the car, he said.

“On high end cars, that costs tens of thousands of dollars potentially… that's something that wouldn't normally happen.”

-With files from CTV News Toronto’s Phil Tsekouras,