York Regional Police say they have charged 56 people and recovered 80 vehicles with a combined value of more than $5 million as part of a seven-week operation targeting auto theft.

The investigation, dubbed Operation Auto Guard, got underway in September and targeted southern York Region.

Officers laid 284 charges against those arrested as part of the investigation.

Police said they also recovered a range of car theft devices, including magnetic trackers, vehicle reprograms, signal and radio frequency jammer and master key fobs.

According to police, auto theft in the region has jumped more than 200 percent over the past five years.

This year alone, 4,294 vehicles have been stolen in York Region as of Dec. 4. That compares to 3,187 in 2022.

According to police Vaughan, Markham and Richmond Hill have been favourite targets for auto thieves, with some scouting neighbourhoods for vehicles in the day and then dispatching crews to steal them in the middle of the night, usually between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Aerial night vision footage released by police show officers intercepting a gang of thieves from Quebec in one late-night sting in September.

"They'll steal multiple vehicles on any given night and then have those vehicles either shipped or driven back to the province of Quebec where they are loaded into shipping containers and shipped overseas," an officer explains in the video, which shows at least one suspect trying to run away from police after being intercepted on a highway on-ramp.

Community outreach was also a significant part of the operation, with officers creating heat maps identifying specific neighbourhoods prone to vehicle thefts and engaging car owners in those areas.

"We were able to identify residences in these red zones with high-risk vehicles registered to their owners," police said in a release. "This allowed us to approach homeowners directly, letting them know they are at risk of having their vehicles stolen, offering them safety tips and giving them the opportunity to take an active role in crime prevention.

Officers handed out cards with crime prevention tips in multiple languages and gave away more than 24,000 Faraday bags, which are used to block the signal-duplicating devices that replicate key fobs.

Ontario Solicitor General Michael Kerzner said Friday that York Regional Police will be receiving $900,000 over three years to support an anti-auto theft initiative as part of the province's $18 million Preventing Auto Theft grants to police forces.

"We have criminals who feel that they can steal our cars whenever they want. And it's not only here but it's all throughout Ontario," Kerzner said Friday. "Thisiscompletelyunacceptable."

Premier Doug Ford made similar comments last week while announcing a grant in Peel Region to combat vehicle theft. He said he was concerned about vehicles thefts where thieves increasingly use violence in order to steal cars.

YRP Chief Jim MacSween said the force will be using the provincial grant to bolster its ability to fight auto theft.

"We will be spending this money wisely on data driven enforcement dedicated investigative teams and acquiring specialized resources and equipment," MacSween said "The funding will also help us expand our data our data collection and analysis efforts to better examine links to organized crime and other criminal activity."

He pointed out that among the hundreds of charges in Operation Auto Guard, eight were breach of probation and 17 were failing to comply with a judicial release order.

"So as you can see many people getting out and re victimizing our community," MacSween said. "We are working with the federal government officials to improve those processes."