Houston Police Believe More Than 100 Cars Stolen by High-Tech Thieves

Two suspects have been arrested in connection with the stolen SUVs and trucks.

ByABC News
August 4, 2016, 10:40 PM

— -- A pair of alleged thieves pulled off a high-tech plot to steal more than 100 Fiat Chrysler vehicles and send them to Mexico from Texas, police said, and the company believes the suspects reprogrammed key fobs with the help of employees at dealerships and repair facilities.

The suspects, 24-year-old Michael Armando Arce and 22-year-old Jesse Irvin Zelaya were arrested for allegedly stealing Jeep Wranglers, Cherokees and Dodge pickup trucks and transporting them across the U.S.-Mexico border. Police say the alleged scheme was usually conducted overnight, with owners not learning of the thefts until sometime the next day.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles spokesman Berj Alexanian told ABC News that employees at Fiat Chrysler dealerships, independent repair facilities and locksmiths have access to databases that list the key codes that pair wireless key fobs with the vehicles they open and start.

The automaker believes the suspects were able to buy usernames and passwords from employees of those facilities, giving them access to the keycode databases.

With that information in hand, the alleged thieves then bought generic key fobs online, found vehicles in the database and broke into them, the spokesman said. Once inside, they were able to enter the vehicle identification number into the database and reprogram the new key fob, giving them the ability to start the engine and drive away, the spokesman said the company believes.

Alexanian called the move modern-day hot-wiring. Fiat Chrysler is asking that car owners ensure their vehicles are in a safe location at night and locked. An internal investigation was launched into the vehicles that were stolen in Houston, but the automaker has not been able to identify any employees who may have sold their database credentials to criminals.

"FCA US takes the safety and security of its customers seriously and incorporates security features in its vehicles that help to reduce the risk of unauthorized and unlawful access to vehicle systems and wireless communications," the automaker said in a statement.

In May, the Houston Police Department was investigating the theft of a Jeep Wrangler in downtown Houston but were unable to find any workable leads, they said. Two months later, the HPD received information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Immigration Enforcement that cars were being stolen using laptops.

Surveillance video from the theft of a Jeep Wrangler shows a man entering the white SUV through the driver side with a laptop in hand. He is seen working on a laptop inside the car for less than 4 minutes before driving away.

Arce was charged with felon in possession of a weapon, possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, while Zelaya, 22, was charged with unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, police said.

When the suspects were arrested Saturday, police also say they found electronic devices, keys and other tools believed to have been used in the thefts, along with narcotics, firearms and body armor, police said.

It is unclear how the cars made it across the U.S.-Mexico border.

It is extremely difficult to export a stolen vehicle, Carol Kaplan of the National Insurance Crime Bureau told ABC News in July. Customs and Border patrol regulate the export of cars, and in order to export a car out of the U.S., a title must be provided within 72 hours, said Charles Brofman of the North American Automobile Trade Association. If the title is not presented, the vehicle will be seized, Brofman added.

Arce has only been charged with the theft of one car and has not yet been indicted, his lawyer, Joe Rey Rodriguez, told ABC News. He pleaded not guilty during his arraignment yesterday and was not given bond, Rodriguez said, declining to comment further on the case until more evidence is presented. His next court appearance is on Aug. 26.

Zelaya is being held on $100,000 bond and did not enter a plea during his arraignment, a clerk for the 184th district court in Houston told ABC News. His next court appearance will be Aug. 10, and he has not yet obtained a lawyer. He has not yet been indicted, according to the Houston District Attorney's office.

ABC's Whitney Lloyd contributed to this report.