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High-tech car theft hits B.C.: Crooks using sophisticated technology to create own key fobs

Low-tech defences: Use a steering-wheel lock, park in a garage
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Recovered Lexus vehicles that were stolen last spring in Metro Vancouver by a ring of thieves from ­Eastern Canada sit in the back of a trailer. The vehicles were recovered in a bust by the IMPACT team on May 31. Three men pleaded guilty to the thefts. INTEGRATED MUNICIPAL PROVINCIAL AUTO CRIME TEAM

VANCOUVER — In mid-April, two people approached a 2020 Lexus RX 350 in a driveway in Coquitlam at 1:40 a.m.

One person, wearing a jacket with the hood pulled up, appeared to put a tool into the driver side door lock, wiggled it around and opened the door. The second person, also hooded, got into the SUV and drove off with it after about 20 minutes.

In a similar theft at the end of May, a white SUV parked near a 2020 Lexus RX 350 on a street in Richmond. It was about 5:30 a.m. A person with a hood tied up tight around their face ran toward the Lexus. The lights of the vehicle flashed as the person neared the vehicle, the person got in and drove off immediately.

The thefts were among 22 that police in Metro Vancouver documented in a seven-week period between mid-April and the end of May of newer model Lexus RX 350s, Jeep Gladiators and Jeep Wranglers, according to documents filed in the provincial court. The thieves also hit Burnaby and Vancouver.

The court documents provide an inside look at how thieves were stealing the high-end vehicles.

Police believe it’s the first example in B.C. of a type of organized theft that uses sophisticated technology to program key fobs by tapping into a vehicle’s on-board computer and using specialized software.

After thieves break into a vehicle, they plug into the diagnostics port under the dash and download information that lets them program a key fob. The fob then lets them start the vehicle. The thieves use the same type of hand-held devices that mechanics use to get information from a vehicle’s computer plus software they can load onto a laptop computer.

The method has been used in hundreds of auto thefts in the Toronto area for several years.

“This is the first significant trend of this type we have seen in B.C.,” said Sgt. Robert Harris, who is with B.C.’s Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team. The team has officers from the RCMP and a number of municipal police departments.

In the Toronto area, thieves targeted higher-end vehicles, stealing them by creating key fobs, usually while people were sleeping. The vehicles were parked elsewhere for a cooling-off period. The vehicles were then loaded into containers for shipment to Montreal and overseas to Africa and the Middle East where the cars can fetch prices as much as twice their value in Canada.

Harris said that they found the thieves used a similar system in B.C.

At the end of May, the auto crime team and New Westminster police busted a ring of three men from Quebec and recovered seven Lexuses, some of them already loaded into containers at a Surrey salvage yard. One container had been loaded onto a transport truck that was leaving the area.

There is no evidence that anyone in the shipping yards was complicit, said Harris.

Four of the seven vehicles were from New Westminster.

The three men — Mohammed Bouteraa, 19, Al Rifai, 22, and Yahya Zitouni, 21 — recently pleaded guilty to auto theft, possession of stolen property for the purpose of trafficking and use of a computer system with intent to commit an offence.

Harris said the type of vehicles thieves have targeted include Lexus SUVs, Ford F-150 trucks, Jeeps and Range Rovers.

“We suspect these vehicles are picked for their off-road capabilities making them more suitable for some overseas markets,” said Harris.

The three men had been using a rented SUV from the Montreal area and were living in a rental house in Surrey, according to documents related to their arrest filed in provincial court.

The court records show the Vancouver police organized crime unit was also investigating auto thefts, overlapping with the investigation by the auto crime team and the New Westminster police. Vancouver police declined an interview about its auto theft investigations.

Auto theft had dropped in Canada since a peak in the mid-1990s, steeply after the federal government mandated in 2007 that vehicles manufactured in Canada had to have an anti-theft immobilizer, an electronic security device in a motor vehicle that prevents the engine from being started unless the correct key is used.

In Canada, the number of vehicles stolen has dropped to about 200 vehicles per 100,000 people today from just under 500 in 2007, according to data company Statista.

In B.C., about 15,000 vehicles were stolen in 2014 but that dropped to about 10,000 by 2020, according to crime trend statistics compiled by the B.C. government.

But thieves have recently discovered how to work around the anti-theft technology in newer vehicles.

Thieves have used a scheme where the signal of a key fob in a nearby location, such as a house, is boosted to start the vehicle, called a relay theft. More recently, thieves started using the method of programming their own key fobs, said Sid Kingma, Équité Association’s director of investigative services for Western Canada.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada recently transferred its investigative services to non-profit Équité to help fight theft and fraud.

Kingma said the use of these methods started in Quebec and Ontario and have worked their way west.

“What we see is the fishing holes get overfished and the criminals start moving to other locations like Alberta and B.C. and start using the same sort of tactics,” Kingma said.

He noted the thieves are targeting higher-end vehicles, usually for export overseas, to countries such as Nigeria, where vehicles will be priced as much as twice their value here.

Kingma said beside the profits, the vehicles provide criminal currency for other illegal activities. “We’re a source country for stolen autos … like you have source countries for drugs.”

Henry Tso, a former RCMP superintendent and former vice-president of investigative service for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said vehicle theft is a fairly low-risk, high-profit crime that is often used as a means of raising money for criminal organizations to pursue other criminal activities such as terrorism, robbery, murders, human trafficking, drug trafficking and illicit trade in weapons.

“You can’t stop this crime, but it can be reduced by education,” said Tso, who is director of forensics and litigation support for professional services company MNP.

Low-tech ways to reduce the risk of auto theft include the use of steering-wheel locks and parking in a garage.

David Masson, director of enterprise security for Darktrace, an information technology company that specializes in cyber-defence, said stealing vehicles using technology is a worldwide phenomenon.

“These new vehicles are pretty much computers on wheels now,” Masson said.

Eventually there will be regulation and manufacturer response aimed at combating hacking of vehicle computers, but it will be driven by the federal government’s concerns over safety rather than professional vehicle theft, said Masson.

For example, when thieves use the on-board diagnostics port to download information, there are potential safety concerns including that malware could be uploaded into the vehicles’ computer, which helps control systems such as braking, he said. And braking is a safety issue.

Toyota, which makes the Lexus brand, said its vehicles comply with all Canadian regulations and it is continually developing and deploying new or improved technical features to strengthen security. The company did not say what improvements it is working on.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to the industry-wide issue of auto theft, higher demand for certain vehicles in overseas markets leads to increased targeting of these vehicles by thieves in Canada,” said company spokesman Philippe Crowe.

Stellantis, the multinational company that makes Jeeps, also said its vehicles meet or exceed federal standards for safety and security. “As with other vehicle features, we are engaged in continuous product improvement,” said Stellantis spokesman Eric Mayne. The company did not say what security improvements it was working on.

Transport Canada noted that regulations on immobilization were brought in to reduce joy riding, a theft of convenience, and for road safety issues, not to combat professional for-profit theft.

“As technology continues to evolve, Transport Canada will continue to monitor the effect of vehicle theft on road safety with a view to ensuring that federal standards reflect safety issues related to theft for convenience,” said Transport Canada spokesman Simon Rivet.

ghoekstra@postmedia.com