How thieves use electronic devices to steal cars

A CBC Marketplace investigation reveals modern car thieves can bypass even advanced built-in security systems.

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It's nighttime in Winnipeg, and a man walks up a residential driveway holding a mysterious device.

With his free hand, he easily opens the front door on one of the parked vehicles. It's as though he has a key, but it isn't his car.

The scene was captured by a home security camera in 2013, but the device remains a mystery.

Cars are becoming increasingly high-tech, and the thieves looking to steal them are, too. A CBC Marketplace investigation reveals modern car thieves can bypass even advanced built-in security systems.

Known as electronic car theft, this new crime is challenging police, who have sometimes been stumped by the sophisticated new methods.

"I think it's always been a sort of cat-and-mouse game," says York Regional Police Det. Sgt. Paul LaSalle, who heads one of the country's biggest auto-theft units.

But, he says, for those thieves who have access to the technology, it's getting easier.

Many of the devices they use are for sale online, though eBay has removed some from their site as a result of Marketplace inquiries.

Mystery device

Nearly 74,000 vehicles were stolen across Canada in 2014, according to Statistics Canada. But the case of thrill-seekers stealing cars with a screwdriver is becoming a thing of the past.

Samy Kamkar, who exposes security flaws to help companies fix them, was able to unlock a car using a device he made that captures the radio signal a driver sends out when clicking the car’s remote. (CBC)
Today's thieves can make big bucks using electronic gadgets to unlock and drive off with new cars.

Footage much like the grainy surveillance tape from that night in Winnipeg has been captured in cities across the U.S.

Marcel Calfat and Christian Latreille think it explains what happened to them last year.

The two Radio-Canada journalists were filming a news story in Miami when thieves managed to get into their locked van, stealing their gear and passports.

Though the van itself was unscathed, they lost thousands of dollars worth of equipment and personal items.

But it's the way the thieves got in that still worries them.

Police departments across Canada have heard of this mystery device, but none Marketplace spoke to had come across one.

"Is it possible that there's something out there?," LaSalle asks. "Absolutely."

Almost anything 'is hackable'

To crack the case, Marketplace worked with Samy Kamkar, a security researcher based in Los Angeles.

Kamkar calls himself a "white-hat hacker," someone who uses his hacking skills to test vulnerabilities, which he then helps companies fix.

“I think it’s always been a sort of cat-and-mouse game,” says York Regional Police Det. Sgt. Paul LaSalle, who heads one of the country’s biggest auto-theft units. (CBC)
"This is a glorified hobby of mine," he says. "Virtually everything is hackable or vulnerable to some sort of security issue."

As part of the Marketplace investigation, Kamkar was able to unlock a car using a device he made that captures the radio signal a driver sends when clicking the car's remote.

Kamkar's device, which he calls a RollJam, cost him about $30 US to make.

He hasn't publicly released the plans, but says he's working with manufacturers to fix the problem.

It's all part of a new reality in auto security, where car companies aren't always the experts.

In January, General Motors became the first big car company to enlist hackers to help expose security gaps in its products.

"The industry has an opportunity to really get out in front of this," says Jeff Massimilla, who heads the company's cybersecurity team in Detroit.

eBay responds

It's been nearly a decade since car companies thought they had found a universal fix to car theft.

Since 2007, all new cars must contain an immobilizer, which prevents a vehicle's engine from starting unless it recognizes the key.

“The industry has an opportunity to really get out in front of this,” says Jeff Massimilla, who heads General Motors' cybersecurity team (CBC)
Police say the system is credited with helping reduce auto thefts in Canada, which have gone down by more than 57 per cent since incidents peaked in 2003.

But car theft rings have found a way around it. Using key-programming machines meant for locksmiths and car dealerships, criminals are able to program blank key fobs to start cars.

Though professional versions are pricey, imitation devices can be bought online for a few hundred dollars. The payoff for a thief can be big.

After Marketplace flagged some sale listings on eBay, the company removed them from its site. It also says it is "reviewing the site for similar listings that violate eBay's lockpicking devices policy," which prevents the sale of such equipment.

Police departments in various Canadian cities told Marketplace they have seized key-programming equipment intended for use in car thefts.

"We've taken out a number of groups that have been using this," says LaSalle, who notes he's seeing more of this kind of theft.

Low-tech deterrents

Though LaSalle says there is no sure-fire way to stop someone who wants to steal your car, there are some deterrents.
A remote’s signal can lock and unlock your car, but it can also be picked up by a potential thief. (CBC)

Simple things such as parking a car in a garage and using a steering-wheel lock could help slow down a thief.

"It's going to take someone that extra time," LaSalle says, adding risk to a potential car theft opportunity.

LaSalle says security cameras and good lighting can help make a driveway less attractive for theft. Parking a newer or more expensive car behind an older model can help protect the more likely target.

There are special locks on the market that can seal off a car's diagnostic port, keeping someone from plugging in a key programming device.  

Calfat and Latreille have some advice for people who worry about a device like Kamkar's. They now avoid the problem altogether and lock their cars the old-fashioned way with a key, instead of using a remote's signal, which could be picked up by a potential thief.

Based on a Marketplace investigation by Greg Sadler, Sarah Bridge and Charlsie Agro.

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