Channel 2 Investigates

Thieves are using your car's electronics against you

ATLANTA — It's a crime at the push of a button. Thieves are using your car's electronics against you in mysterious new ways.

Channel 2 Consumer Investigator Jim Strickland followed a tip all the way to California to get answers.

Home security camera footage was sent to Strickland from a viewer in Walton County.

It shows a crook approach a locked car, and without any forced entry, he simply opens the driver-side door.

A closer look at the video shows the thief holding something mysterious in his hand.

Strickland showed the footage to Dave Renaud, a special agent with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

"It's a like device that's being used to pop open the locks by reading the fob signal that communicates between the fob and the vehicle itself," Renaud told Strickland.

Renaud and the NICB studied similar videos from Chicago, Long Beach and Corona, California.

In all the videos, thieves approach locked, parked vehicles with a device in hand and are instantly able to open the door and make off with whatever valuable contents they can find.

The dashboard camera in Steve Doi's car captured a crook holding a black device before entering the car and making off with expensive electronics.

"On the video, you can hear the door locks go, 'Blip,'" Doi said.

Strickland traveled to West Hollywood to learn the secret.

"What's your confidence level that you're going to be able to break into my rental car?" Strickland asked nationally known computer hacker Samy Kamkar.

"I'm fairly confident I'll be able to break in," Kamkar told Strickland.

Kamkar agreed to do for Strickland what he's refused to do for crooks who've asked: Break into a car without a key.

First, Kamkar captures the radio-frequency signal of the fob into his computer to analyze it.

"Basically, I'm looking at the signal that the key fob sends to the vehicle," Kamkar told Strickland.

Next, Kamkar programs a circuit board to intercept the coded unlock signal.

Once near Strickland's vehicle, Kamkar's homemade device is able to unlock all the doors with the push of a button.

"Virtually every vehicle is vulnerable to the same type of attacks," Kamkar told Strickland.

The hardware Kamkar uses, which costs around $30, will not start the ignition. But Atlanta police have seen a device that will.

It's a high-tech hotwire technique used by convicted car thief and chop-shop baron Ronald Thomas.

"In the manner in which he was stealing the cars and the unique way he was stealing them, the technology, we hadn't seen that previously," Atlanta Detective Steven O'Hare told Strickland.

O'Hare says Thomas broke into cars the old-fashioned way: By popping a door handle off.

But once inside, he used his own electronic control module to plug into the car's diagnostic computer port. This allowed him to start the car and drive off without a key.

"They have to figure out a way to steal something from somebody else that worked so hard for it," Katrice Osbourne told Strickland.

Osbourne's GMC Yukon was one of at least 16 high-end SUV's Thomas made off with.

Once stolen, Thomas would disassemble most of the cars to sell the parts.

Osbourne, a former jailer, told Strickland she is baffled by people gifted with high-tech knowledge who use it to steal.

"They're very intelligent. They can make a lot of money doing the right thing. Instead, they traumatize people," Osbourne told Strickland.

Thomas is now doing time but O'Hare fears there are others using this technique.

"We're still losing vehicles of these makes and models without the use of a key," O'Hare told Strickland.

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