Sunday 17 December 2017

Gone in 24 hours - one BMW stolen every day

BMW 4 series coupe
BMW 4 series coupe
Jim Cusack

Jim Cusack

An average of one high-powered BMW is being stolen every day by foreign criminal gangs using hand-held computers to hack into the car's 'brain'.

At least 120 BMWs were stolen in the last three months in Dublin and surrounding counties by the thieves, who gardai believe are foreign gangs operating a major cross-Border operation in stealing and shipping luxury car parts out of the country.

BMW has said it upgraded its in-car security three years ago and say newer models are secure against the highly organised thieves, who can steal a car in minutes using computer technology.

But top-end motor brands such as Audi and Mercedes are also being targeted by gangs believed to be breaking up the cars for their valuable parts, which are in demand in the Eastern European markets.

Gardai and the PSNI have been working together to try and tackle the gangs, who move between here and Britain.

Patterns which first emerged in and around London four years ago are now being used here to target luxury-brand cars for breaking into parts. Cars are also sold on to criminal gangs for use in robberies and drugs runs.

Police in the UK first noted the pattern, where high-end cars are broken into by members of the gang in the manner of ordinary petty theft. Often small items of personal property are stolen, leaving the impression that the vehicle, whose alarm has been set off, has been robbed purely for minor gain.

However, the break-in allows the organised thieves to plug a hand-held computer into the car's OBD (on-board diagnostic) port, usually low down on the dashboard, to clone the data on the car's operating systems and keys. With the data they can then programme a new electronic key fob.

After the owner of the car has repaired the damage - usually a broken window - the thieves return at night with the cloned key that allows them to drive away without any fuss. Ironically, the thieves have been assisted by EU regulations, which directed car manufacturers to allow independent garages to have access to their security codes to enable them to clone keys. The luxury manufacturers had wanted to keep their cars' computers only accessible to their registered dealers. However, this was turned down by the EU to allow independent mechanics to work on cars.

The organised thieves have since gained access to the hand-held computers which they plug into the car's computer "brain" and retrieve the data needed to replicate keys.

The latest cross-Border operation was first discovered when the PSNI raided a premises in south Co Down, in April, and found a variety of upmarket cars, some broken into parts - including BMWs, a Saab, Mercedes, Volkswagens and Citroens. Two of the BMWs were found to have been stolen in the Republic.

Gardai believe the luxury car parts gangs are part of a wider and highly organised network which has been stealing a variety of vehicle, plant and marine leisure equipment, particularly outboard engines, across Western Europe in recent years.

The foreign criminals target the Republic due to the relatively low prison sentences they face if they are caught. In these instances, the criminals usually get bail, allowing them to skip the country and evade justice.

Sunday Independent

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