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Family forced to abandon minivan in Victoria gets key help from hacker

John Higgins is drained. Happy, but drained.
lost key5.jpg
A little computer hacking helped solve a specialized key problem that forced a Surrey family to abandon their minivan in Victoria. The van's onboard computer was removed and handed to a computer hacker who reprogrammed the codes to work with new keys.


John Higgins is drained. Happy, but drained.

The Surrey man, whose story of losing a specialized car key and being forced to abandon the family minivan in Victoria in June went viral, has been through an emotional wringer this week, leading to elation when he finally found a solution to his key problem.

“It’s been a pretty crazy couple of days — we’re still getting used to the whole idea of having our car again,” said Higgins in a phone interview. “Yesterday, when we started the car, we were both in a daze for the rest of the day.”

Higgins said the experience has been frustrating, exasperating and extraordinary.

“And there’s been a mixture of some guilt too, there are people out there who have lost their homes, there are murders, there’s Trump . . . yet a little story about a lost key resonated with people,” he said.

Higgins, his wife, Maria, and their two kids were visiting Victoria in early June when they lost their keys somewhere near Wharf Street. The family later found out the lost key to their right-hand-drive, imported Toyota minivan was basically irreplaceable.

With no means of starting the car without a key with the proper security chip — Toyota in Canada, the U.S. and Japan could not offer a replacement — the family had to leave the car in Victoria for two weeks before towing it back to the mainland.

Since then, and until this week, John Higgins has been driving his in-laws’ minivan.

But a little computer hacking and about $5,000 later, the family is back behind the wheel of their car.

The car was towed to a mechanic’s lot, where the dashboard was removed to provide access to the onboard computers.

“It was like disassembling the space shuttle — there was miles of wires. It’s more computer than car,” Higgins said.

The immobilizer computer was then removed and handed to a computer hacker, who had to open the device, determine which chip on the circuit board stored the key codes, and reprogram the codes to work with new keys. The computer was then reassembled and reinstalled, and the dash was replaced.

The cost of labour was $3,000, with another $760 in towing costs and $770 for programming new keys.

Velocity Motors in Burnaby, which imported the car from Japan, paid half the bill.

“They have been amazing — there’s definitely no hard feelings,” said Higgins.

He did say the family remains a little frustrated with Toyota Japan, which could have saved the day. Their minivan was built for the Japanese market, and company policy is to only provide replacement keys for vehicles that are physically taken to a dealership in Japan.

“[A replacement key] is sitting on a shelf in a warehouse in Japan somewhere, and it’s not that they couldn’t send it — it’s that they won’t,” he said, noting the company suggested it would have set a precedent it couldn’t afford.

“I understand that if they helped every person out there who lost a key to a minivan, they would do nothing else, but to string us along for seven weeks saying [maybe] is tough. It would have been nice to know [they wouldn’t help] seven weeks ago.”

Still, Higgins said the family is thrilled to have their vehicle back and they plan a road trip soon to Kelowna.

Of the new keys, one will be kept in a bank vault, and if the old keys ever do surface and find their way back to him, Higgins said he’ll frame them and hang them as a cautionary tale.

“We are glad it’s over and back to normal,” he said.