High-tech car thieves break into vehicles without leaving a trace

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Auto Burglary Technology Emerges - Keyless Access

Police in Long Beach, Calif., are puzzled by a string of car burglaries where thieves allegedly use a mysterious handheld electronic device to gain keyless entry to the vehicles.

Police in Long Beach, Calif., are asking for the public's help in tracking down a ring of car burglars who are using a sophisticated electronic gadget to break into vehicles, steal things and leave with hardly a trace.

The Long Beach Police Department this week released surveillance video of three suspects using a small handheld device to unlock vehicles before burglarizing them.

In the video, two men are seen walking up to four different vehicles, two parked on the street and two parked in the same driveway.  A third person is seen walking on the opposite side of the street, possibly acting as a lookout.

The two are not able to gain access to the vehicles in the street but manage to get into the two vehicles in the driveway after using the device to turn on the vehicles' dome lights and unlock the doors. They rifle through the cars, take some items, gently close the doors and leave.

The break-ins occurred on the early morning of Feb. 26 in an East Long Beach neighborhood. A total of eight vehicles in the neighborhood were burglarized that night.

Related: America's 10 most stolen vehicles

"Potentially, there could be numerous residents who were unknowingly victimized, or believed they may have left their vehicles unlocked and a suspect took advantage of the opportunity, but there is no way to know for sure," the police department said. 

"The LBPD’s Auto Theft Detail has been working with law enforcement agencies throughout the nation and internationally, as well as vehicle manufacturers, attempting to identify the type of technology that is being used."

Long Beach police spokeswoman Marlene Arrona told MSN News on Friday that detectives have received numerous calls and tips but "there have been no arrests yet and no determination as to what the device is exactly."

Because the surveillance cameras captured the scene from a distance, detectives couldn't get a close look at the burglars' device. Arrona said it appears to be a black, palm-sized object.

"Technology unfortunately is working against us. We are hoping that someone can provide us with some information regarding this new technology and shed some light on how someone would obtain this technology," she said.

One auto-theft expert believes the device is a type of scanner used to pick up signals emitted by keyless entry fobs that have become commonplace on newer vehicles.

Robert F. Mangine, an automotive forensic consultant, said such a scanner could pick up radio frequency signals if the person with the fob is nearby. Or, it could be that the burglars followed the vehicle owners and scanned the signals earlier.

"We're talking professional level. Some kid on the block isn’t going to have this type of equipment," he told MSN News.

Related: Why car thefts spike in July

This type of technique isn't unheard of.

A neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., experienced a wave of high-tech car burglaries in 2011 in which perpetrators broke into vehicles that have keyless remotes with no sign of forcible entry.

Two Swiss researchers presented evidence at a security symposium in 2011 that such keyless auto burglaries and thefts could become more commonplace. The researchers said they were able to get into 10 models of cars and drive them away by intercepting and relaying signals from the vehicles to their wireless keys.

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