Jeep Wrangler owners in the city of San Diego can sleep easier knowing three men are behind bars and several more are on the run following a crackdown on thieves targeting the popular off-roader.
Since 2014, more than 150 Wranglers have disappeared from the driveways and garages of San Diego homes, often while the owners are asleep. Thanks to the city’s Regional Auto Theft Taskforce (RAT), law enforcement now knows how the theft ring operated, and where exactly those Wranglers went. Bad news for owners: they’ll likely never see their vehicles again.
According to ABC 10News, the theft ring was masterminded by the Tijuana, Mexico-based Hooligans biker gang. Nine gang members, seven of whom are U.S.-born, are now charged withÂ conspiracy to commit transportation of stolen vehicles in foreign commerce. Three suspects were arrested Tuesday. The remaining six are believed to be in Mexico.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office has claimed the thieves used a high-tech way of disabling locks and alarm systems in order to access the vehicles. How the thieves were able to start the vehicles and drive away is a touchy matter for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. It seems the thieves targeted specific vehicles, took a photo of the vehicle identification number, secured the vehicle’s key code, then created a duplicate key to sidestep security systems.
The codes could have been programmed into the duplicate key using a hand-held device. How did the thieves get their hands on a duplicate key? Following surveillance video footage of one of the thefts, law enforcement sent a list of 20 vehicles to FCA. The automaker discovered that a duplicate key had been requested for each of the vehicles by persons who were not the owner. Almost all of the keys were requested through a single dealer in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Using this tactic, a total of $4.5 million in stolen Wranglers were driven across the border.
“Once the vehicles were in Mexico, they were parted out,” explained California Highway Patrol Capt. Donald Goodbrand. “Their body panels and aftermarket and factory accessories were sold for cash or VIN-switched and sold outright.”
The method of theft is very similar to a series of recent Ram and Jeep thefts in the Houston area. In those cases, thieves also entered vehicles in the dead of night after disabling both locks and alarm systems, quite likely using purloined dealer information.
Titus Melnyk, FCAâ€™s senior manager of security architecture, told TTAC last summer the thefts were the result of “people abusing their privileges.”
“Once theyâ€™re inside [the vehicle], theyâ€™re connecting a laptop which is running the software necessary to marry or join a key fob to the vehicle,â€� said Melnyk. â€œNot just anyone can do that â€”Â you need to have access to our systems in order to get the information necessary from each vehicle to marry a key fob.”
Only dealers and locksmiths would have access to this kind of vehicle-specific information, he said.
[Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles]