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News 13 Investigates: The new age of car theft

Police have released what is believed to be the first footage of a ‘relay crime’ in the West Midlands that allows thieves to drive off in vehicles without needing to even see the owner’s keys. (Image credit: West Midlands Police)

After a decade of decline, vehicle theft is on the rise across the country, especially here in North Carolina. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation statistics shows a 13-percent jump in the number of car and truck thefts last year.

While authorities can’t necessarily pinpoint the cause of the increase, many believe that spike is, in part, the result of new technology that offers convenience for owners and car thieves.

Using any internet search-engine, type the words “high-tech car theft.” The first thing that the search engine will likely generate is a surveillance video from the West Midlands Police Department in Central England.

In the video, two men approach a car in a driveway, box-shaped devices in-hand. One stays by the vehicle, the other stands near the garage.

What's happening is the thief closest to the house is robbing the signal transmitted by the car's remote key, which is likely hanging on a hook right inside the front door of the house. His box sends that information to the other device, and they're in. A little more than a minute later, the car is gone.

“Fortunately, in this country, we have yet to see a documented case of a single theft by that kind of process," says Frank Scafidi with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau is a Chicago-based non-profit that tracks insurance-related crime, with a focus on motor vehicle theft. Scafidi says this level of sophistication being used overseas really isn't necessary, that technology already here can accomplish the same goal, "You wipe the memory, you wipe it out of the car's computer, you reprogram the key you have to that vehicle, and now you're off to the races."

Scafidi's not talking about an old-school key, the kind cut at a locksmith or hardware store. It’s the key fob that lets the modern-day driver in, some including a push-button start. The devices are all computer-driven, programmed and can be re-programmed. That creates a weak link in high-tech security.

The problem is key programmers used by legitimate locksmiths, for work at car dealerships and for customers who may need replacements.

Programmers used by professionals cost thousands of dollars but anyone looking can find knock-offs being sold online that run as low as $50.

Justin Pronyk owns "American Eagle Locksmith" in Fletcher, "Because the technology has been hacked, and made onto these devices that people can buy online, it allows them the ability to get into these vehicles, and program a key into it very quickly."

Pronyk sells safes, security systems, and programs keys, all legally, but he knows how it works for those who don’t.

Pronyk used a Toyota Prius, a very popular car but one that is not among those easy to steal, to show our News 13 crews how it is done. He chose a very popular car, that is not among those easy to steal. Pronyk hooks his programmer to the computer under the front seat. The two devices start talking, and a Toyota blank key fob listens in. During that conversation, a new key-code is created. The blank fob reads and stores it and, as Frank Scafidi said, it's off to the races, the old key is no more. In this demonstration, it took 13-minutes.

"With some vehicles, as quickly as about three to four minutes," Pronyk says.

A big factor is that the programmer still has to be inside the vehicle, which means an old-fashioned break-in first. That draws attention, something thieves would rather avoid.

Officials say protecting yourself is beyond simple: lock your car, hang onto those key-fobs and keep your eyes open.

Follow that advice, as automakers struggle to stay ahead of the bad guys.

"I think with the electronic stuff, the technology, how easy some people can defeat that, I think it is a challenge to the industry," Scafidi says.

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