By on May 31, 2017

2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 75th Anniversary Edition, Image: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

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 with 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, FCA’s senior manager of security architecture, told TTAC last summer the thefts were the result of “people abusing their privileges.”

“Once they’re inside [the vehicle], they’re connecting a laptop which is running the software necessary to marry or join a key fob to the vehicle,” said Melnyk. “Not just anyone can do that — 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]

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13 Comments on “Cross-Border Jeep Wrangler Theft Ring Busted in San Diego...”

  • avatar

    This is exactly what I was saying about the thefts in Texas there was someone in a dealership that was looking up the codes once the thief had captured the VIN when they found a good prospect.

    Despite what some people said in that thread FCA did have the ability to check their system and see what dealership the request for the code originated from. Makes me wonder why we never heard about someone who works at a dealer getting busted in that scenario.

    Contrary to what is posted in this article a lock smith doesn’t have the ability to look up the code, they have to call a dealer. Said dealer if they are smart will only do it for an established customer and then note who they looked up the code for.

    I know when I had a Ford dealer look up a code they required proof of ownership, they were satisfied with the registration that matched the name an address on my driver’s license.

  • avatar

    I know a few people in SD area with Jeep Wranglers. We are wondering if it is legal to cover the VIN with electrical tape? The idea being that thieves can’t casually record the VIN in order to get their buddies at the dealership (or at FCA itself) to give them the car’s encryption key.

    We think that this might be worthless as protection. I’m sure these same gangs have insiders at the DMV who can send them the DMV record based on your license plate. And the DMV has your VIN in their database.

    Perhaps there are serious consequences for abusing the DMV database that would prevent abuse. Oh wait, never mind. Ha ha.

    • 0 avatar

      Just put a nice switch somewhere that will break the circuit. Done. These thieves are “new age”. They know how to steal car using computer but they will run into trouble connecting 2 wires.

    • 0 avatar
      S2k Chris

      “We are wondering if it is legal to cover the VIN with electrical tape?”

      Considering how easy it is to get into a Jeep especially with soft top (or no top) seems like that would barely slow thieves down.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Denver

        Apparently the theft was a two step process – first they would note your VIN, then they would come back once they had a working key fob. So once you were broken into you would have a clue as to what was coming next. Anyway, the idea is not to make your car theft-proof, just more inconvenient to steal than the next car.

        • 0 avatar
          87 Morgan

          Jack, I would bet money the VIN was photographed in the Grocery store parking lot. Said neredowells then wait patiently for the owner to return and follow them home taking note of the address.

          I doubt seriously they would break into someone’s home twice. There was a level of sophistication with these heists that suggests a modicum of intelligence on the part of the bad people and the risk associated with breaking into a home once let alone twice are high, so you might as well make the most of the breakin and leave with property.

          • 0 avatar

            They’re not breaking into homes (garages). Wranglers are to easy to find parked in driveways and apartment parking, (even if not lifted 4+ inches and 35s), especially in SD, where most home garages have been converted into living space or apartments.

          • 0 avatar

            In the Houston ring the MO was find the vehicles parked outside at their home in the middle of the night. Grab the VIN, most likely with a scanner app on their phone or a quick picture. Then they would obviously note the location, pass the VIN off to the contact who would return the code that they use to put the vehicle in fob learning mode.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes it is fully legal to put a piece of tape or something else over the VIN visible through the windshield. If the vehicle has a hard top then you are almost certainly safe from this kind of a theft. They don’t want to break in until they have the code to marry a new Fob. Soft top or top off then it won’t do any good.

      • 0 avatar

        This wouldn’t work (covering the vin up) because you can go on carfax with the plate number and get the vin…

        The best way to stop this is a kill switch hidden somewhere.. The classic car guys have to do that since a lot of those old cars can probably be started with a flathead..

  • avatar

    Years ago (the late ’70s) the San Diego Police had a border exit station at the end of I-5 at the border crossing for just this reason – theft of vehicles from San Diego County heading south to become taxi’s and new Tijuana police cruisers. They’d do plate/registration checks on cars heading into Tijuana. They also stopped southbound underage kids from bar hopping on Avenida Revolution. But, as with most things, it was considered harassment by folks sur de la linea (south of the border) and this effort was abandoned.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny you should mention Tijuana Police Cruisers .
      The L.A.P.D. used to donate the best salvage Cruisers to Tijuana P.D., noe ever made ot to duty ~ they were all sold to Taxistas for $600 +/- each .
      Then, you’d go look at the Tijuana P.D. cars and guess what ? every one was a clapped out ex U.S.A. taxi…

  • avatar

    I sure won’t mind having a stock Wrangler stolen. They have such incredible book value that they are unlikely to lose any real money.

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