Authorities said the gang would target a Jeep, get the vehicle identification number, and then access a proprietary key database to obtain codes for creating the pattern to make a new key and fit it with a programmed computer chip that linked to the car's computer system, according to a DOJ press release.
The attack allowed the thieves to disable the alarm and drive away without being noticed. Once stolen, the gang would transport the vehicles to Mexico. Authorities began monitoring the gang in the summer of 2014 after a rash of Wrangler thefts in which there were no forced signs of entry, broken glass or triggered alarms.
It was unclear how the thieves gained access to the proprietary database, but authorities said a car dealership in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where at least 20 requests for duplicate keys for cars were stolen, may have been involved.
At first, officers were dumbfounded as to how the thieves were carrying out the heists until surveillance footage captured three men stealing a vehicle by disabling the alarm then using a key and handheld electronic device to start the engine.
“Based on the surveillance footage, law enforcement agents sent Chrysler a list of around 20 Jeeps that had recently been stolen in San Diego County and asked whether anyone had requested duplicate keys for the stolen Jeeps,” the DOJ release said.
“Sure enough, Chrysler responded that a duplicate key had been requested for nearly every one of the 20 stolen Jeeps.”
In addition, authorities said nearly every one of the keys had apparently been requested through the same Cabo San Lucas dealership.
Three of the suspects have already been apprehended while the other six remain at large in Mexico.
The suspects are being charged with Conspiracy to Commit Transportation of Stolen Vehicles in Foreign Commerce and could face up to five years in prison.