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'Mystery device' helps thieves steal cars with push-button ignitions


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Automotive News  /  December 7, 2016

Car thieves are using a new technology to break into and drive away with vehicles that have push-button ignitions without a trace of evidence, and there’s nothing that potential victims can do to prevent it.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) today said it obtained and tested a so-called “mystery device” that can allow a thief to break into a vehicle without leaving behind any of the traditional pieces of evidence such as broken glass.

The device, which comes in two pieces, works by picking up a signal from the vehicle’s key fob from a distance of up to 10 feet. Once the signal is received, the device transfers the data to a smaller “relay box” that can be used to unlock and start the vehicle.

NICB spokesman Roger Morris said the bureau, working with used-car retailer CarMax, tested the device on 35 makes and models at various locations, including new- and used-car dealerships, in the Chicago area over a two-week period. He said the NICB was able to open 19 of the vehicles and was able to drive away in 18.

Combating these devices is the latest battle between automakers and criminals in the modern era. Concerns over hacking and other cybersecurity issues have gained prominence in recent years as vehicles become more connected.

Morris said it is impossible to know how many vehicles might have been stolen using these devices because no evidence is left behind. Owners and law enforcement are often unaware of such technology existing, though the NICB first noted a rise in the use of such technology in 2014.

The “scary part is that there’s no warning or explanation for the owner,” said NICB CEO Joe Wehrle. “Unless someone catches the crime on a security camera, there’s no way for the owner or the police to really know what happened. Many times, they think the vehicle has been towed.”

NICB said it obtained the device “via a third-party security expert from an overseas company” that provides “manufacturers and other anti-theft organizations the ability to test the vulnerability of various vehicles’ systems.”

Morris said that while thieves can purchase devices from various sources, a thief with skills in computer technology could build one on his own, making cracking down on the makers of the devices difficult.

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