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Tech-savvy teens behind 1000% surge in Camaro thefts, LAPD finds

Investigators believe a 16-year-old suspect used an electronic device to create cloned ignition keys

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Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

By Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The Chevy Camaro muscle car sitting abandoned at a South L.A. intersection looked suspicious enough.

But then LAPD gang detail investigators spotted two teenagers running from the scene near Slauson Avenue and Broadway and were able to stop them.

One of the youths was carrying an electronic device that police said provides a window into why thefts of the popular Camaros have shot up by more than 1000% in L.A. this year, with 90 vehicles stolen since the beginning of the year. Police said the spike comes at a time when there are increasing numbers of the high-powered vehicles turning up at street takeovers.

The device is essentially a hand-held computer that enables the user to create a replacement smart key — using a new key fob — that can unlock Camaros and other vehicles, bypassing the vehicle’s existing security system, investigators said. Once the user punches in the make, model and year of the vehicle into the computer, it is then able to reprogram the car’s ignition system and generate a new or universal car key.

LAPD investigators believe a 16-year-old suspect used the device to create cloned ignition keys to steal muscle cars. A new Camaro can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“This young person was stealing the Camaros and taking them to street takeovers and then selling them for $2,000 or $3,000 on social media,” Newton Division Capt. Keith Green said. “A 16-year-old was capable of stealing high-end cars.”

LAPD’s Newton Division, which covers the northernmost section of South L.A., saw the number of Camaro thefts jump from 2 to 10 in the first two months of the year, while citywide they jumped from 7 to 90, Green said. Investigators, he said, now may have the answer to why thefts are soaring.

The technology to clone key fobs is commercially available, and with a little bit of tech wizardry even a high school youth can become a skilled thief of technology-dependent cars, Green said. Investigators say that thieves can generate replacement keys in less than three minutes with the right program and hardware.

Vehicles used in street racing and burnouts — the practice of keeping a car stationary while the wheels are spinning, causing the tires to smoke — suffer so much wear and tear that participants often prefer to use stolen vehicles, police said. This is why thieves often target prized muscle cars.

The LAPD did not indicate the exact method the teenager might have used in the South L.A. incident. But in several cases documented by other jurisdictions, people used a similar device to connect with the vehicle directly or used a wireless system to download all of the car’s information to create a duplicate electronic key fob.

Green said it was too early to say exactly how many thefts are tied to the youth, who was turned over to his parents after his arrest on Feb. 25. Detectives will refer the case to the district attorney’s office, which will decide whether to pursue charges.

The best way to stop thieves is to employ extra security measures such as fuel cut-offs, steering wheel locks and keeping the vehicle in a more secure place, Green said. Also, detectives advise drivers never to keep key fobs inside a vehicle. Security cases are available on the market that may be utilized to prevent key fob signals from being transmitted. Improvised strategies such as wrapping fobs in aluminum foil or placing fobs inside tin cans have proved effective.

Nationwide, American muscle cars have become the target of some large theft rings. In 2022, dealers in Michigan reported a series of thefts that investigators later tied to key fob cloning.

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