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Car hacking: Thieves armed with laptops are stealing cars

Jul 07, 20163 mins
Data and Information SecurityEndpoint ProtectionSecurity

Officials warn of a 'new' high-tech method thieves are using to steal cars

Thieves armed with laptops are hacking into electronic ignitions of late-model cars to steal the vehicles. Police and insurers sounded the warning to raise awareness about the latest car-theft trend.

The Houston Police Department pointed at surveillance footage that shows two suspects, one of whom used a laptop, before stealing a 2010 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. The first suspect opened the Jeep’s hood to reportedly cut the alarm. The footage below took place about 10 minutes later when a second suspect jimmied the door open, climbed inside and then did something with a laptop before stealing the Jeep.

“If you are going to hot-wire a car, you don’t bring along a laptop,” Houston Police Department Officer James Woods told the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t know what he is exactly doing with the laptop, but my guess is he is tapping into the car’s computer and marrying it with a key he may already have with him so he can start the car.”

This goes beyond thieves using a $17 power amplifier to brute force the unique key fob code to break into cars with remote keyless systems. In those cases, thieves were reportedly looking to loot valuables from vehicles, not steal the car. People were told to store their wireless key fobs in a freezer or other Faraday cage so the thieves couldn’t pick up the signal.

Now the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) says it has started seeing police reports tying “thefts of newer-model cars to ‘mystery’ electronic devices.” NICB Vice President Roger Morris told the WSJ, “We think it is becoming the new way of stealing cars. The public, law enforcement and the manufacturers need to be aware.”

A Fiat Chrysler spokesperson told the WSJ he believes the Houston thieves “are using dealer tools to marry another key fob to the car.”

When it comes to thieves using laptops, Morris said laptops would allow a thief to hack, or “manipulate,” the car’s computer so it would “recognize a signal sent from an electronic key the thief then uses to turn on the ignition.” The computer reads the signal and switches on the engine.

Morris added, “We have no idea how many cars have been broken into using this method. We think it is minuscule in the overall car thefts, but it does show these hackers will do anything to stay one step ahead.”

When the FBI alerted the public to car hacking, there was no mention of “mystery” devices being used to break in and steal cars. The agency was mostly focused on how attackers could exploit vulnerabilities to remotely take control of the car.

According to the NICB’s Hot Wheels Report, the Toyota Corolla, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Impala and Chevrolet Malibu are the top five late-model cars stolen between 2010 and 2015. The last Hot Wheels Report, which tallied the “most stolen” vehicles during 2014, listed the top five as the Honda Accord, Honda Civic, full-size Ford Pickup, full-size Chevrolet Pickup and the Toyota Camry. As for where vehicles were being stolen during 2015, California claimed eight of 10 spots in the NICB’s latest Hot Spots Vehicle Theft Report.

ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.