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Car Safe Electronic Thieves

I started keeping my car keys in the freezer, and I may be at the forefront of a new digital safety trend.

Let me explain: In recent months, there has been a slew of mysterious car break-ins in my Los Feliz neighborhood in Los Angeles. What’s odd is that there have been no signs of forced entry. There are no pools of broken glass on the pavement and no scratches on the doors from jimmied locks.

But these break-ins seem to happen only to cars that use remote keyless systems, which replace traditional keys with wireless fobs. It happened to our neighbor Heidi, who lives up the hill and has a Mazda 3. It happened to Simon, who lives across the street from me and has a Toyota Prius.

And it happened to our Prius, not once, but three times in the last month.

The most recent incident took place on a Monday morning 10 days ago. I was working at my kitchen table, which overlooks the street in front of my house. It was just after 9 a.m., when one of my perky-eared dogs started to quietly growl at something outside.

I watched as the girl, who was dressed in a baggy T-shirt and jeans, hopped off her bike and pulled out a small black device from her backpack. She then reached down, opened the door and climbed into my car.

As soon as I realized what had happened, I ran outside and they quickly jumped on their bikes and took off. I rushed after them, partly with the hope of catching the attempted thieves, but more because I was fascinated by their little black device. How were they able to unlock my car door so easily?

When the police arrived, they didn’t have much of an answer. (The thieves didn’t get away with anything; after all the break-ins, we no longer keep anything in the car.) I called Toyota, but they didn’t know, either (or at least the public relations employee didn’t know).

When I called the Los Angeles Police Department’s communications desk, a spokesman said I must have forgotten to lock my car. No, I assured him, I had not. But his query did make me question my sanity briefly.

I finally found out that I wasn’t crazy in, of all places, Canada.

The Toronto Police Service issued a news release last Thursday warning that thieves “may have access to electronic devices which can compromise” a vehicle’s security system. But the police did not specify what that “device” actually was.

Thieves have been breaking into and stealing cars with the help of electronic gadgets for several years now. Jalopnik, the car blog, has written about a “secret device”used to unlock cars. And dozens of other websites have told stories about burglars hacking into cars. As these reports illustrate, and videos online show, in some instances thieves are able to drive away with the cars without needing a key.

Still, I continued my search. Diogo Mónica, a security researcher and chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Public Visibility Committee, said that some sophisticated thieves have laptops equipped with a radio transmitter that figures out the unique code of a car’s key fob by using “brute force” to cycle through millions of combinations until they pick the right one.

But none of the contraptions Mr. Mónica or others told me about seemed to be what those teenagers used.

A more likely answer came from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a trade group for auto insurers and lenders, which issued a warning last month about a “mystery device” that can emulate a key. In one YouTube video, the group compiled surveillance footage that showed thieves using the gadget to open doors with ease.

Similar reports have surfaced on The Register, a technology news site, and on car message boards, about a simple $30 device made in China and Eastern Europe that allows thieves to break into and steal BMWs. Since I don’t own a BMW, that wasn’t right, either.

I finally found what seems like the most plausible answer when I spoke to Boris Danev, a founder of 3db Technologies, a security company based in Switzerland. Mr. Danev specializes in wireless devices, including key fobs, and has written several research papers on the security flaws of keyless car systems.