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High-tech car theft highlights evolving criminal trade

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

(KPRC)---A recent arrest of two men on car theft charges highlights an evolving criminal trade in which police and theft recovery experts say thieves are using laptops and programs to hijack security systems.

Paul Grant, the owner of TRS, a company specializing in theft recovery services, demonstrated 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" that knows that only a certain key is allowed to start the vehicle.

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

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

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

And it's not just one car on which the device would work; it would work on multiple cars.

"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 makes and models of cars. Finding a used ECM isn't difficult, as we found several for sale at junkyards.

A good example of the crime is found in a video out of Houston that went viral. Houston police received surveillance video May 25 of a Jeep Wrangler being stolen from a driveway. The video showed a man working on a laptop before driving off with the Jeep.
During the investigation, HPD received information from federal officials that several cars and trucks had been stolen using a laptop computer. 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 two were sending the stolen vehicles to Mexico. Police said that when they arrested Arce and Zelaya, they found drugs, guns, body armor, keys, tools and "electronic devices."

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

Police and Grant said there is little that can prevent such high-tech thefts. However, both suggest that, when possible, owners shouldn't park vehicles on the street or in a driveway overnight. Police also saidowners should considering making sure their vehicles have an alarm, GPS tracking and 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.