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Car theft goes high tech: How prowlers are embracing technology

Scanner boxes such as this one are what car thieves are using to gain entry to cars. Thieves will put them in their back packs, walk up to the vehicle, and it will unlock. (National Insurance Crime Bureau)

What was once rumor and speculation has become fact. Car thieves are going high-tech, but law enforcement is catching on.

“It is on the rise. Two years ago we somewhat heard about it and it was just a rumor. We weren’t really sure,” said Scott Wagner, a special agent with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Law enforcement and insurance agencies were coming across cases with little or no evidence on how some cars were being broken into. It seemed the cars were just opening up for prowlers. It turns out, some thieves found a way to hack into keyless car systems. Agents like Wagner are catching up to the trend.

Related: Seattle in top 10 hot spots for vehicle theft

“In 2015, it was coming up a lot more,” he said. “Last year people started doing more research and videos turned up; residents videotaping their cars being broken into.”

Some car thieves and prowlers throughout Washington, and the nation, are using code duplicating devices, commonly referred to as “scanner boxes.” The devices allow them to access a vehicle without the need for a key. These devices are exploiting electronic systems that many vehicles now use, such as key fobs with buttons to lock and unlock car doors. Or, fobs that drivers carry which unlock cars automatically as the person nears the vehicle. Some of those fobs allow a car to be turned on at the push of a button.

The scanner boxes replicate the signal that key fobs and cars emit. A thief using the device can either be near a fob to copy the coded signal, or be near a car. Either way, the end result is that thieves copy the code and use it to enter a vehicle.

“The thieves carry them in their backpacks and when they walk up to one of these keyless entry vehicles, newer vehicles, the box itself reads the signal from the car and it will actually unlock the car,” Wagner said.

Wagner recently met with and informed residents of West Seattle about the high-tech break-ins during the first West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting of year. During the meeting, Southwest Precinct Captain Pierre Davis told attendees that car prowls “remain big,” the West Seattle Blog reports.

Though no specific data was provided on how many car prowls involve scanner devices, the number of reported prowls in 2015 as of Dec. 5 reached 12,315, according to the Seattle Police Department. That’s actually a decrease from 2014, when 14,250 car prowls were reported.

Wagner said that there is currently no evidence that the devices are being used to start a vehicle, but it is possible that is happening.

“There is a device that some of them have that will actually start the car as well,” he said. “It reads the code and you are able to push a button and start the car.”

The number of vehicle thefts reported in 2015 was, like car prowls, down as well compared to 2014. The police department reports there were 3,422 vehicle thefts in the city as of Dec. 5, 2015. There were 5,154 reported up through Dec. 5, 2014.

“It’s not necessarily just to steal the Mercedes or the BMWs or Porches. They can get into lower-end cars that aren’t as expensive but have the transponder keys,” Wagner said.

Scanner boxes are generally used by licensed locksmiths. They allow a locksmith to assist a car owner enter their vehicle if their keys are lost. It also allows a locksmith to make a key fob duplicate if one is lost or damaged. Wagner said it is unknown how the devices are getting into the hands of thieves, but did note he has come by evidence that indicates one thief made a box from scratch.

It’s become an auto theft niche, and a trend that law enforcement and agents like Wagner are now catching on to. It’s difficult, however, to determine exactly how many cars are being stolen with a scanner box. To determine that, investigators need evidence, and such a device leaves little. But some evidence has slowly accumulated.

“There’s evidence of individuals walking up to cars, and you see the dome light come on in the car, and they just open the door up,” he said. “We’ve had a couple reports of people calling 9-1-1 and said they saw someone walking by and the car unlocked as the person walked up. There is evidence and video to show it.”

NICB has since put the electric systems to a forensic test. Wagner said they concluded it is possible. So far, to Wagner’s knowledge, no law enforcement agency has recovered one of the devices yet.

“Some of them are just burglarizing your car &#8212 stealing your portable GPS or purses, whatever you have in your car,” Wagner said, further noting that in other cases thieves are stealing cars altogether.

Wagner said that about 43 percent of stolen vehicles are never recovered and for very good reason.

“Typically because they are either stripped down and sold for parts or shipped out of the country,” he said. “Or they clone the vehicle, put a new identity on the vehicle and then sell it to somebody.”

Despite thieves finding new and improved ways to break into cars, Wagner said the advice to car owners remains the same as it has been for years &#8212 don’t leave valuables in a car.

As for the fobs, organizations such as NICB are looking into how to combat the electronic thefts.

“If you have those fob keys or keyless entry vehicles &#8212 what happens is you are hanging your keys, let’s say by your front door, and your car is within 50 feet or so of your keys,” Wagner said. “They can read the signal off of that because it is so close to your car.”

One forensic thief advised Wagener that one way to stop the signal from the fobs is to put it in a freezer.

“Most people are not going to do that,” Wagner said. “I would recommend putting your keys as far away from your car as you can. Hang them in your kitchen so it’s more than 50 feet away from your car.”

Top 10 stolen cars for 2015 (Wagner notes older models are the easiest to steal vial old-school methods):

1 Honda Accord
2 Honda Civic

3 Chevrolet Pickup (Full Size)
4 Ford Pickup (Full Size)
5 Toyota Camry)
6 Dodge Pickup (Full Size)

7 Dodge Caravan
8 Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee

9 Toyota Corolla

10 Nissan Altima

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