SAN DIEGO — Nine members of a Mexican motorcycle gang have been charged in a series of high-tech auto heists in which they made off with more than 150 Jeep Wranglers by hacking into a database that allowed them to get duplicate keys.
Prosecutors said the men, members of the Hooligans motorcycle gang based out of Tijuana, had been running the scheme since at least January 2014. In all, they allegedly netted $4.5 million worth of cars they brought back from southern California to Mexico to be sold or stripped for parts.
“The joy ride is over for these Hooligans,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney Mark Conover. “These arrests have put the brakes on an organization that has victimized neighborhoods.”
The gang operated brazenly, taking off with cars they would snatch out of people’s driveways overnight as they slept nearby.
Prosecutors allege that the Hooligans would scout vehicles out in advance and collect their vehicle identification numbers. They would then gain access to a proprietary database used by the manufacturer to create duplicate keys for cars. Using the codes, the gang was able to create a key for the specific Jeeps they were targeting, prosecutors said.
Investigators said that enabled the thieves to make with cars in sometimes less than two minutes. For months, investigators were baffled as to how the Hooligans were managing such effortless thefts.
They got a break when one car owner whose Jeep was stolen, happened to have surveillance camera trained on her driveway and captured footage of the thieves in action. The footage revealed that the men had a key to the car.
The FBI then contacted Chrysler and were able to determine that 20 of the cars that were stolen had had duplicate keys issued to a dealership in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. None of the owners were aware that the keys had been issued.
Three of the nine defendants — Henry Irenio Pulino, 24, Alejandro Guzman, 23, and Reynaldo Rodriguez, 33 — have been arrested and the other six at large and are believed to be in Mexico.
Prosecutors say the men similarly targeted motorcycles, prosecutors said.