Thieves use high-tech device to break into cars, police say

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

(KPRC)- 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 an owner 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 Rosenberg police Lt. Chad Pino.

Marcus Moses and his wife, Diana, had both their Ford Edge and Ford F-150 pickup truck burglarized sometime after 2 a.m.

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

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The couple was 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.

How are the thieves able to do it? Auto theft experts in the National Insurance Crime Bureau believe that 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 of NICB.

Investigators in 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 a 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.