Thieves use high-tech device to break into cars

Police believe thieves used device to steal code from couple's key fobs

HOUSTON – Brazen car thieves are breaking into cars all over the country using a mystery device that lets them open the car door almost as quickly as you can.

"It's so cavalier. They just walk up with this device, hit the button and open the door and they're in. It's that fast," said Lt. Chad Pino, of Rosenberg police.

It happened in Rosenberg in the Summer Lakes subdivision in December. All told, seven cars were broken into and ransacked.

Marcus Moses and his wife, Diana, had both their Ford Edge and Ford F-150 pickup truck broken into sometime after 2 in the morning.

Police believe the thieves used a mystery device, sometimes called a code grabber or a key fob amplifier, to steal the code from the couple's key fobs, which were inside the house.

The Moseses were asleep and had no idea what had happened until the next morning. There were no signs of forced entry.

"I was just thinking to myself, 'How did this happen?' I know I locked my car but still somebody got in. I was flabbergasted, because you do so much to protect your car and to think someone could get into it as easily as I would," Marcus Moses said.

So just how are the thieves able to do it? Auto theft experts with the National Insurance Crime Bureau believe they have found the answer. It’s a two-piece electronic device called a relay attack device. It works by hijacking the signal from a key fob right out of thin air.

"It involves two devices. One grabs the signal from your fob and relays it to the other smaller device, which essentially now acts like your key fob. It sends the signal to the car to unlock the car and the thief can climb inside. If the car has a push-button ignition, you can many times start the car as well and drive off with it," said Roger Morris, with NICB.

In fact, investigators with the National Insurance Crime Bureau tested the device on 35 different cars, different makes and models. Of the 35 cars, they were able to break into 19 of them and were able to start 18 of the 19 vehicles and drive away with them.

"In the last few months, we've seen more evidence that they've been not only able to break into the cars, but also start them," Morris said.

Several different versions of the devices have been used by thieves, but the overall way they work is by stealing the frequency from your key fob and cloning it so that the mystery device essentially becomes your key fob.

"Cars are basically computers on wheels these days, so if you can hack a computer, somebody out there is going to figure out a way to hack a car," Morris said.

What can you do to protect yourself from this high-tech crime? Surprisingly, there is a very low-tech solution, says John Blackwell, of the Galveston County Auto Crimes Task Force.

"You remember that device called The Club that goes over your steering wheel and locks the steering wheel in place? That tool could prevent this crime from being carried out because even if the crooks get inside and can start the car, they can't drive it," Blackwell said.

Another possible solution is to buy what is called a Faraday Cage. It's an RFID-blocking protective bag that acts like a shield to protect a key fob from being cloned.

There is also a product called the Silent Pocket. It also acts like a shield for your fob. You put your keys in it and it shields them. It also uses the Faraday technology to block signals from being stolen from your fob.

For more information on this new, high-tech crime, read this special article from the NICB.

About the Author:

Emmy-winning investigative reporter, insanely competitive tennis player, skier, weightlifter, crazy rock & roll drummer (John Bonham is my hero). Husband to Veronica and loving cat father to Bella and Meemo.