Criminal group busted after stealing hundreds of keyless cars

Europol has disclosed an international operation in which 31 suspects were arrested, 22 locations were searched, and over one million Euros in criminal assets were seized. The organized criminal gang specialized in stealing French keyless cars.

Among the arrested were the software developers that created so-called automotive diagnostic solutions which allowed the criminals to replace the original software of the vehicles, allowing the doors to be opened and the ignition to be started without the actual key fob. Others include the software resellers and the actual car thieves who used the tool to steal vehicles.

The arrests were made by French, Latvian, and Spanish law enforcement agencies with the assistance of Europol. Europol said it’s supported the investigation since March 2022 by providing extensive analysis and the dissemination of intelligence packages to each of the affected countries.

Suspects

The fraudulent software duplicated the vehicles’ ignition keys in order to aid in the theft of the car. Marketed as an automotive diagnostic solution, the tool was able to replace the original software of the targeted vehicles without respecting the protocol and without the original key.

Details about the method the car thieves used are sparse (for understandable reasons), but what we could gather is that the developers ran a website—on a domain that has been seized—where they sold a package that included a tablet, connectors, and software. The software was constantly adapted and updated to counteract the measures implemented by companies to reinforce the security of their vehicles.

Stealing keyless cars

Europol said the gang focused on cars from two unnamed French car manufacturers, which probably means the developers found a vulnerability in the car’s firmware that allowed them to replace the original software.

Vulnerabilities in the keyless entry systems have been found in the firmware of other car manufactures. To thwart intercepting and replaying authentication codes, many modern cars rely on a rolling codes mechanism. This method was introduced to prevent replay attacks by providing a new code for each authentication of a remote keyless entry. But this method is not available for all brands and models, and some brands were found to be using predictable codes.

The Europol and Eurojust statements both say that the tools provided by the developers enabled criminals to replace the original software of the targeted vehicles. This indicates a very different methodology from intercepting and replaying authentication codes.

Mitigation

Now that law enforcement has found and disabled the source of the software it shouldn’t take too long to find out which method was used, and the car manufacturers should be able to make the necessary adjustments.

Updating your car’s firmware is usually not an easy job or one we recommend doing yourself. We would recommend checking with your local dealer whether one is available and needed. It usually requires a special device to be hooked up to a port hidden under your dashboard. Your dealer will have such a device and knows where to find the port.

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