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Phantom car break-ins baffle authorities

12/18/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST
Montreal-area police forces have no explanation for a series of car break-ins which leave no visible signs of forced entry on the vehicles themselves.

Montreal Police sergeant Laurent Gingras acknowledged the existence of electronic devices which would allow thieves to unlock car doors, but said police have not arrested anyone with that kind of technology.

''Unfortunately it's difficult to give you numbers on the occurrences that we have on the island of Montreal for stealing cars with that little gadget,'' he said. ''We really have to catch the person in the act.''

Gingras said authorities do not believe the practice is wide-spread in the Montreal area.

CBC Montreal Investigates found two examples of streets where multiple neighbours said their cars were broken into with no traces despite the fact they were locked.

On October 25th, Stephanie Zouzout woke up in her Dollard -des-Ormeaux home and discovered her car doors were not closed properly.

“I went into my car and I saw that my compartment in the middle, it was open. So I opened it and that’s when I noticed my wallet and my GPS were gone,” she said.

Across the street from her, Derek Mestel and his wife Tara woke up to the same unpleasant surprise on the same morning. Each of their cars, which they say were locked, had been robbed.

“I had no windows broken, I had no windshield broken, there was no damage to the exterior of the car,” Mestel said.

Neighbours on a small stretch of street in Laval’s Duvernay sector are puzzling over a similar mystery there from last summer.

Karim-Luigi Fezzani woke up on August 19th to find both his and his mother’s cars with their doors unlocked.

Both are certain they’d locked their doors the night before.

“”I couldn’t do anything. All you could do is lock your door, and I did that, and, unfortunately, I got robbed,” Fezzani said.

His neighbour across the street, as well as another a few doors down, also found their cars broken into that morning, with no traces.

Break-in mechanisms exist

There are ways of breaking into cars which do not require smashing windows or cause any other sort of damage.

"It's not a whole lot of work if you know what you're doing," said Spencer Whyte, a Carleton University biomedical and   electrical engineering student. He'd built a device to trick his own car into opening its doors as an honours project for his previous undergrad degree in computer science.

Whyte had used a similar system to break into a family member's car as well.

"My system depends on jamming the message going from your key fob to the car," said Whyte.

The device grabs a hold of the radio frequency signal remote keys send to locked cars to open them.

"(Car owners) hit the lock button, it's not going to lock," he said.

Whyte said there is a chance the car owner may not realize their car did not lock, and just walk away.

Plus, if the car owner decides to walk back to the car and manually lock it, somebody with Whyte's device could easily unlock it again once the owner leaves the scene.

When CBC Montreal Investigates set up an interview with Whyte, he built a prototype device in a matter of hours. We had him test it out on our company vehicle.

We locked the car, and tried unlocking it with our remote key fob as he activated his device. He successfully jammed the signal, preventing us from accessing the car.

A few minutes later, he unlocked it by replaying the recorded signal from his device.

Last year, CBC Manitoba interviewed a Winnipeg resident who seemed to have his car broken into with another kind of hand-held device, which sends an electromagnetic pulse wave into a vehicle to disable its electronics.

Whyte said manufacturers may always try to improve security systems, but hackers will inevitably find ways around them. 

"The only way to truly stop some of these electronic hacks would be go to your dealership and get the electronic door locks disabled," he said.

Meanwhile, the Automobile Protection Association said it had not heard of these types of break-ins in the Montreal area before.

The A.P.A's president, George Iny, told CBC car theft trends tend to make their way from west to east in Canada. He said these door-lock hacking attacks remain rare, in general. He said car manufacturers may want to consider favouring mechanical locking again if these kinds of break-ins become more prevalent.

"What you see here is if you cut out one of the lines of defence, the thief really only needs one way in," he said.

CBC Montreal Investigates

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