Stealing cars isn’t always a messy game that leaves piles of broken glass at the scene.
In many of the latest rides, all it takes to swipe a vehicle is a key fob, a bit of deception at a car dealership and slight of hand by a well-prepared thief, security experts say.
A new-age key fob thief once struck luxury dealership Braman Motorcars, which sells BMW, Audi, Porsche, Mini, Bentley and Rolls-Royce vehicles in West Palm Beach and Jupiter, Fla.
“After they took a test drive, they swapped out a key fob. Then they came back two days later and found the car out in the inventory and were able to gain access to the vehicle,” said Jim Bristow, director of finance at Braman Motorcars.
Key fob trickery adds another security headache for dealerships that are already dealing with test-drive thefts and identity fraud, which is sometimes linked to international crime rings.
Dealerships must keep their guard up to avoid falling prey to crafty thieves.
“We’ve had cases where people have been able to go to dealerships and through some sort of scam can get a duplicate key made. That sometimes involves people on the inside not being careful about the rules,” said Frank Scafidi director of public affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
“There are steps people are supposed to go through — mainly making sure you’re giving a key to somebody who actually owns the car.”
Dealers are finding ways to fight back. Discreet tracking devices increase the odds of vehicle recovery. LoJack Corp. reports a 94 percent success rate.
Braman Motorcars is well prepared for thieves who, like the key fob trickster, think they have made a clean escape. It installed LoJack tracking systems on all 700 of its new vehicles.
Police found the vehicle stolen by the trickster the next morning after picking up the LoJack signal, Bristow said.
Braman Motorcars also experienced a test-drive theft when a person took off with a vehicle while switching seats with the salesperson at a stop.
Bristow said law enforcement tracked down the vehicle just 8 minutes after it was reported stolen, thanks to LoJack’s little black box.
LoJack has partnered with nearly 2,000 law-enforcement agencies nationwide at the local, state and federal levels. They use around 14,000 LoJack tracking computers installed in patrol cars and aircraft to pick up signals from the boxes. A LoJack Stolen Vehicle Recovery System device is triggered once authorities report a theft and enter the vehicle’s information into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database.
LoJack CEO Randy Ortiz said it’s hard for a professional thief to uncover a device “because it doesn’t emit any signal until such time that the vehicle is reported stolen.”
A foreign national, working with a theft ring in Hong Kong, recently used identity fraud to secure an Audi Q7 at a California dealership.
The man made an $8,000 down payment on the SUV, and it took three weeks for the store to realize the man’s information was bogus. The dealer then contacted the Los Angeles Taskforce for Regional Autotheft Prevention, which is run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department, said Pat Clancy, vice president of LoJack’s Law Enforcement division.
The theft unit entered the vehicle as stolen, and the Q7 — equipped with a LoJack recovery system — was soon discovered by the Long Beach Police Department in a shipping container at the Port of Los Angeles slated for a Hong Kong delivery.
Clancy said the shipping manifest revealed that the party that had leased the Audi shipping container had also leased 22 other units. Some of the containers, already bound for Hong Kong, were ordered back.
Nearly 50 other luxury vehicles — worth $2.8 million — were discovered in the containers and reclaimed because of one LoJack system.
Clancy said the vehicles had been stolen from dealerships in California, Washington, Nevada and Arizona.
“This was a professional crime ring,” LoJack’s Ortiz said. “There were orders on the other end for specific vehicles and how they wanted them equipped.”
Once a thief attempts to make a getaway, OnStar has the ability to bring high-speed chases to a halt and save lives, said George Baker, OnStar’s emergency services outreach manager.
High-speed chases cause more than 300 deaths each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Baker said years ago law enforcement agencies approached OnStar about developing a system that would take the steam out of high-speed chases. OnStar conducted three clinics with the agencies to aid in developing the technology.
Stolen Vehicle Slowdown was unveiled in the 2009 model year and is now standard across most General Motors models, Baker said.
“We send a signal to disable the accelerator, and the braking and steering remain intact so the vehicle can be safely pulled off to the side of the road,” he said. “The thief can be apprehended and perhaps, most importantly, OnStar can play a role in either slowing down a vehicle at a high rate of speed or preventing a high-speed chase altogether.”
OnStar’s technology has abruptly ended nearly 200 pursuits, and the telematics service has assisted in the recovery of around 60,000 stolen vehicles overall.