Houston, Texas – Two men jailed and accused of using pirated computer software to steal more than 100 vehicles may have exploited an electronic vulnerability to advance auto theft into high-tech crime.

Authorities said Michael Arce, 24, and Jesse Zelaya, 22, focused on new Jeep and Dodge vehicles, which attract big money on the black market in Mexico. They allegedly used a laptop computer to reprogram the targeted vehicles’ electronic security so their own key worked.

Houston police officer Jim Woods said the stolen vehicles had a common software that’s used by auto technicians and dealers.

“As you get more and more computers installed in vehicles,“ he said, “if somebody has that knowledge and that ability, they can turn around and figure out a way to manipulate the system.”

Fiat Chrysler, which makes Jeeps and Dodges, and police are investigating how the thieves got access to a computerised database of codes used by dealers, locksmiths and independent auto repair shops to replace lost key fobs.

Berj Alexanian, a spokesman at the company’s US headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan said the code database was national and includes vehicles in areas outside of Houston, although he wasn’t aware of similar thefts elsewhere.

“We’re looking at every and all solutions to make sure our customers can safely and without thinking park their vehicles,” Alexanian said Friday.

– AP
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