High-tech thieves are using new devices like electronic key fobs and code duplicators to break into cars without leaving a trace, a disturbing pattern that is frustrating vehicle owners, insurance companies and police departments across the country, an I-Team investigation has found.
The thefts have happened in places from England to California, and while no statistics document how many may have occurred in the tri-state area, experts caution local car owners are at risk as well.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau issued a warning about the advanced technology car thefts. One of the devices mentioned in the warning is an electromagnetic pulse device, which sends a shockwave to a car's circuitry that unlocks the doors. Another device the thieves use is a code grabber, which unlocks cars by locating and duplicating their remote key cords -- allowing someone to get into a vehicle by essentially cloning the key.
Break-in devices that use radio frequency are also prevalent.
Police in Saulsalito, California, investigated one case caught on security camera in which a thief appears to use a device to unlock the door. No alarm goes off. The thief opens the back door, takes a laptop bag, then pops open the trunk and steals a $15,000 bicycle, authorities tell the I-Team the video shows.
"Hackers have found out how to amplify the signals so if you keep the keys in your home, they can trick your car into thinking [the keys] are standing next to your car while the keys are really in your home," said Adam Wandt, a technology professor at John Jay College in New York.
New York Times writer Nick Bilton was in the living room of his Los Angeles home when he says he saw two strangers approach his car.
"I saw one pull out a device and somehow unlock the car," Bilton said. "I was shocked and yelled at them and they ran away."
Bilton was able to thwart the apparent thieves, but he had no idea what they used to unlock his car.
Wandt said the high-tech devices are not only prevalent, they're easily obtainable and cheap, opening the door for potential thieves seeking to take advantage.
At this point, the thieves primarily only use the devices to break into cars and steal items from within them, the I-Team's investigation found. The devices don't have the capability to allow thieves to drive off in the vehicles.
There are some ways to protect your car, including by placing your keys inside a Faraday bag that physically blocks the signal from your fob, Wandt said. The best defense, though, is to keep your inside your garage if you have one so there's a physical barrier to thieves, experts say.
"To watch someone who doesn't have a key to your car walk up and open the door is a pretty scary thing," Bilton said.