Laptop used to reprogram, steal more than 100 cars

HOUSTON (AP) — Two men jailed in Houston 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.

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

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

The stolen vehicles had a common software that’s used by auto technicians and dealers, he said.

“If someone has turned around and pirated that software and uses that software for other, illegal purposes, that’s something we can’t control,” Woods said.

Berj Alexanian, a spokesman for Auburn Hills, Michigan-based Fiat Chrysler, which makes Jeeps and Dodges, said the company and police are investigating how the thieves got access to a computerized database of codes used by Fiat Chrysler dealers, locksmiths and independent auto repair shops to replace lost key fobs. He said the code database is 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.

The company was looking at how to better secure the key fob database and other potential solutions, but any steps would have to be tested and validated, he said, meaning Fiat Chrysler vehicles could remain vulnerable. The company is recommending they always be locked and parked in a secure place.

That may not be enough, though, according to Woods.

“No matter what you do, if somebody has the ability and the knowledge to steal your car, they’re going to be able to take it,” he said.

Arce and Zelaya, who each have criminal records, were arrested last weekend driving a stolen Jeep Grand Cherokee after police had been concentrating on an area of Houston that had been hit previously by auto thieves. They also recovered electronic devices, keys and other tools believed used in the thefts, along with drugs, firearms and body armor.

Arce’s lawyer, Joe Ray Rodriguez, said Friday it was too early in his review of the case to discuss it and that he was awaiting evidence to show how Arce, who he said was accused of stealing only one vehicle, could be tied to as many as 100. Arce remained in jail without bond on charges of unauthorized use of a vehicle, felony possession of a weapon, and possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. He was set for a court appearance Aug. 26.

Zelaya did not yet have an attorney, according to court records. He’s being held on $500,000 bond on a charge of unauthorized use of a vehicle and was due in court Wednesday.

The Houston police investigation began in late May with the theft of a Jeep Wrangler near downtown. Leads in that case had been exhausted when investigators received information from federal Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers about vehicles being stolen using a laptop. Arce and Zelaya then were identified as suspects.

In the Jeep Wrangler case caught on a surveillance video, the suspect got under the hood, cut wires to the horn to disable an alarm and then got inside the SUV. Once inside, he used the database and the vehicle identification number to program a new key fob for the Jeep.

“The car thinks, ‘Here’s my owner,’ and they just drive away,” Alexanian said.

Other thefts may have involved different tactics, but that’s also under investigation, he said.

Authorities believe the vehicles, typically stolen during the night, were headed to Mexico — just over 300 miles away — before owners even realized their cars or trucks were gone.

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AP Auto Writer Tom Krisher reported from Detroit.

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This story has been corrected to show Arce’s court appearance is Aug. 26, not Wednesday.

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