'Master Key' Suspected in Rash of Toyota Tacoma Thefts

PHOTO: A string of thefts of Toyota Tacomas, seen here, has led authorities in Southern California to suspect that a ring with a “master key” is behind them.
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A rash of thefts targeting Toyota Tacoma trucks has Santa Barbara, Calif., cops suspecting that a ring of thieves has a "master key" that can open and turn on any Tacoma truck.

Police were first alerted to the Tacoma scams two weeks ago when a Santa Barbara man reported that a car he had just bought in a private sale had been stolen during the night. When he called the police to report the theft, a subsequent investigation revealed that the plates on the truck had been stolen in Bakersfield, Santa Barbara Police Lt. Paul McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey said that since the incident, three more Tacoma trucks have been swiped in Santa Barbara.

A Santa Barbara police department press release stated that the department suspects the thieves possess a "master key" that could unlock any Toyota Tacoma.

"I don't know how this particular person got this key, but I do know that someone moderately sophisticated could create [and duplicate] keys that could open a wide range of vehicles," McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey said that the security of a car largely depends on the security of the ignition. Modern cars have keys that contain a computer chip that would need to match the ignition in order to start the car, he said.

Moe Durand, a specialist in Toyota product communications, confirmed that cars have immobilizers, designed to prevent the car from being stolen, but there are ways to circumvent the immobilizer code. However, immobilizers are a relatively new technology and only began appearing around 2005.

Durand does not buy into the "master key" theory. " One key cannot access multiple vehicles," he said. "That would be impossible."

The Tacoma thieves have also stolen plates to put on stolen cars.

McCaffrey says that few people immediately realize their license plates have been stolen, so it doesn't get reported quickly. So a stolen car can have what appear to be legitimate license plates, causing the stolen car itself to appear legitimate.

It doesn't always work. Police pulled over a man driving a Toyota Tacoma for a minor equipment evaluation a few days ago and discovered that his license plates didn't match his vehicle, McCaffrey said. The man, who provided a Los Angeles address, was detained after police found the truck had been reported as stolen earlier that night.

McCaffrey said he did not know what role the suspect may have in the alleged ring, and he did add that another Tacoma was reported stolen after the man was taken into custody.

"I'm sure when you get caught red-handed, you don't want to play yourself as a mastermind… But is he involved in this? I think he's part of something bigger than himself," the lieutenant said.

Despite the arrest, Santa Barbara cops have warned Tacoma owners to take extra precautions with their vehicles, parking them in garages or equipping them with steering wheel locks and alarms, and to check their license plates frequently.

The cops are also warning buyers of Toyota Tacoma trucks to "exercise caution," especially if the truck is sold below market value and the seller requires cash payments.

"We want word to get out at least in our community that we're looking for you," McCaffrey said.

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