Montreal·Special Report

Phantom car break-ins in Montreal area baffle authorities

Montreal-area police forces have no explanation for a series of car break-ins that left no visible signs of forced entry on the vehicles.

CBC Montreal Investigates: Vehicles are broken into without any traces left behind

Carleton University student Spencer Whyte built a device allowing him to unlock car doors. We asked him to test his device on our company vehicle. 0:53

Montreal-area police forces have no explanation for a series of car break-ins that left no visible signs of forced entry on the vehicles.

Sgt. Laurent Gingras of Montreal police said he has heard of electronic devices that allow thieves to unlock car doors, but said police have not arrested anyone with that kind of technology.

''Unfortunately, it's difficult to give you numbers on the occurrences that we have on the island of Montreal for stealing cars with that little gadget,'' he said. ''We really have to catch the person in the act.''

Gingras said authorities do not believe the practice is widespread in the Montreal area.

CBC Montreal Investigates found two examples of streets where multiple neighbours said their cars were broken into with no traces despite the fact they were locked.

No sign of forced entry

On Oct. 25, Stephanie Zouzout woke up in her Dollard-des-Ormeaux home and discovered her car doors were not closed properly.

The only way to truly stop some of these electronic hacks would be go to your dealership and get the electronic door locks disabled.- Spencer Whyte, Carleton University student

“I went into my car and I saw that my compartment in the middle, it was open. So I opened it, and that’s when I noticed my wallet and my GPS were gone,” she said.

Across the street from her, Derek Mestel and his wife Tara woke up to the same unpleasant surprise on the same morning. Their cars, which they say were locked, had been robbed.

“I had no windows broken, I had no windshield broken, there was no damage to the exterior of the car,” Mestel said.

Neighbours on a small stretch of street in Laval’s Duvernay sector are puzzled over a similar mystery there from last summer.

Karim-Luigi Fezzani woke up on Aug. 19 to find both his and his mother’s cars with their doors unlocked.

Both are certain they’d locked their doors the night before.

“I couldn’t do anything. All you could do is lock your door, and I did that, and, unfortunately, I got robbed,” Fezzani said.

His neighbour across the street, as well as another a few doors down, also found their cars broken into that morning, with no traces.

Break-in mechanisms exist

There are ways of breaking into cars that do not require smashing windows or cause any other sort of damage.

"It's not a whole lot of work if you know what you're doing," said Spencer Whyte, a Carleton University biomedical and electrical engineering student. He had built a device to trick his own car into opening its doors as an honours project for his previous undergraduate degree in computer science.

Whyte had used a similar system to break into a family member's car.
Carleton University student Spencer Whyte has come up with a way to copy and mimic car key remote signals as a school project. He successfully locked and unlocked a CBC vehicle with his device. (CBC )

"My system depends on jamming the message going from your key fob to the car," said Whyte.

The device intercepts the radio frequency signal that remote keys send to locked cars to open them.

"[Car owners] hit the lock button, it's not going to lock," he said.

Whyte said there is a chance the car owner may not realize their car did not lock, and just walk away.

Plus, if the car owner decides to walk back to the car and manually lock it, somebody with Whyte's device could easily unlock it again once the owner leaves the scene.

CBC tests out lock hacking

When CBC Montreal Investigates set up an interview with Whyte, he built a prototype device in a matter of hours. We had him test it out on our company vehicle.

We locked the car, and tried unlocking it with our remote key fob as he activated his device. He successfully jammed the signal, preventing us from accessing the car.

A few minutes later, he unlocked it by replaying the recorded signal from his device.

Last year, CBC Manitoba interviewed a Winnipeg resident who seemed to have his car broken into with another kind of hand-held device, which sends an electromagnetic pulse wave into a vehicle to disable its electronics.

Whyte said manufacturers may always try to improve security systems, but hackers will inevitably find ways around them. 

"The only way to truly stop some of these electronic hacks would be go to your dealership and get the electronic door locks disabled," he said.

Meanwhile, the Automobile Protection Association said it had never before heard of these types of break-ins in the Montreal area.

APA president George Iny told CBC that car theft trends tend to make their way from west to east in Canada. He said these door-lock hacking attacks remain rare, in general.

He said car manufacturers may want to consider favouring mechanical locking again if these kinds of break-ins become more prevalent, Iny said.

"What you see here is if you cut out one of the lines of defence, the thief really only needs one way in."

CBC Montreal Investigates

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About the Author

Raffy Boudjikanian is a national reporter with CBC in Edmonton. He has also worked in Calgary and Montreal for the public broadcaster.


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