High-tech car theft highlights evolving criminal trade

Police, experts see thieves use laptops, programs to hijack security systems

HOUSTON – A recent arrest of two men on car theft charges highlights an ever evolving criminal trade. Police and theft recovery experts are seeing thieves using laptops and programs to hijack security systems.

Paul Grant, owner of TRS, a company specializing in theft recovery services, demonstrated for KPRC 2 how replacing a vehicle's engine control module is one method used to steal older model cars.

Grant said an ECM is a vehicle's "brain" and that "brain" knows only a certain key is allowed to start the vehicle.

"The module is telling it, it's not allowed to start because it's not recognizing the chip that it's inside of these keys," Grant said.

Grant explained a thief will attach a reprogrammed ECM to a vehicle to "trick" it into thinking it no longer needs a specific key to start the engine. Grant said thieves will either use pirated software to reprogram an ECM or use a program that is designed to help a car get better gas mileage or more horsepower.

"It's a bunch of ones and zeros like everything else is," Grant said. "Everybody evolves."

"Will that work once, on one car, or can you use it on multiple cars?" Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold asked.

"Oh no, this would be worth gold to you if you were a thief," Grant said, referring to an ECM.

Grant said an ECM from one type of car will work on other similar make and model cars. Finding a used ECM isn't difficult, as KPRC 2 found several for sale at local junkyards.

Perhaps more baffling is a recent car theft case worked by Houston police. On May 25, HPD received surveillance video of a Jeep Wrangler being stolen from a driveway in the Hyde Park area. The video showed a man working on a laptop before driving off with the Jeep.

During the investigation HPD received information from federal officials several cars and trucks were stolen using a laptop computer. From there HPD identified two suspects and later arrested Michael Armando Arce, 24, and Jesse Irvin Zelaya, 22.

Police said the pair are suspected of stealing 100 Jeep Wranglers, Cherokees and Dodge pickups. Investigators said the pair were sending the stolen vehicles into Mexico. Police said when they arrested Arce and Zelaya they found drugs, guns, body armor, keys, tools and "electronic devices."

Police are not yet certain exactly how thieves pulled off the thefts, but speculate they may have obtained codes needed to reprogram a key so it could start a vehicle. Police said the investigation is not over and other people may be arrested.

Police and Grant said there is little that can prevent these type of high-tech thefts. However, both suggest, when possible, not parking your vehicle on the street or in a driveway overnight. Police also say owners should considering making sure their vehicle has an alarm, GPS tracking and even possibly a remote kill switch. None of that can stop a theft, but can help police track down a stolen car, and potentially the thief, much faster.