Channel 2 Investigates

High-end cars, trucks disappearing from dealerships

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — It’s a growing trend in Metro Atlanta. Thieves are swapping out key fobs to make off with high-end cars and trucks from dealerships.

Crooks are test-driving cars, then returning fake key fobs to salespeople and using the real ones to come back later and steal the cars.

“I remember getting a call from the dealership saying two cars were missing when they came in in the morning,” said Kevin Wilson, who owns a security company that protects a car dealership on Satellite Boulevard in Gwinnett County.

Thieves stole a Mercedes-Benz and BMW off their lot in October of last year.

“One was valued at about $60,000, and the other was valued right under $50,000,” Wilson said.

Channel 2 Action News obtained reports for six key fob car swap thefts at five dealerships in Gwinnett County in the past year. Detective Andrew Allred said they see about a dozen cases a year, and that number is growing.

“I think honestly it’s word of mouth. I think it’s gotten around that it can be done, and once you swap the key, that’s the hard part of the process,” said Allred.

Fraud expert Barry Bannister is investigating after thieves swapped key fobs to steal two Dodge Ram pickup trucks in Duluth in early February.

He showed us the fake fob the thieves used, as well as the real thing.

Car thieves are swapping out key fobs during test drives at car dealerships.

“What you’re looking at is, you’re looking at the same type of key fob, but the actual pictures are different,” said Bannister.

Bannister said he’s seen it happen about eight times.

“The key, they went and looked and checked the key machine where they secure the keys. The key was actually in the machine. But then, when they took it out and looked at it, and the car being gone, they knew the key fob had been swapped,” said Bannister.


Bannister showed Channel 2’s Tom Regan how the key machine at a Cobb County dealership works. The salesperson uses their fingerprint to open the box, and a log is kept of who opens the machine and when.  Bannister said maintaining control of the keys can prevent this type of theft.

“And then, when they take a key out that the salesman that’s taking the person on a test drive, that they’re the one that brings the car back in and they’re the one that parks the car. That key should never leave their hand,” said Bannister.

Many of the cars stolen in Metro Atlanta will never be recovered because they are shipped overseas.  We traveled to the Port of Savannah, where many cars end up.  We were there as officers inspected these high-end collector cars to make sure they were not stolen.

Officers seized a Ford pickup truck from a container. Someone had reported a lien on it because they said whoever bought it hadn’t made a single payment. It was going to Africa. Officers seized two other cars for the same reason.

Area Port Director Lisa Brown told us about the top targets.

“Particularly high-end SUVs and trucks. Those are the things that, when they’re stolen, and in these containers, those are what we see most frequently,” said Brown.

Bannister said that when stolen cars are not recovered, it hurts consumers.

“It eventually trickles down to the customer,” said Bannister.

When it comes to recovering stolen cars, experts say time is of the essence.

“If you don’t catch a car within the first 24 hours, pretty much call it gone,” said Wilson.

Bannister told us thieves can easily buy key fobs at dealerships and on eBay.

Comments on this article