Automobiles

Sacked worker hacks and disables cars

A man fired from a Texas car dealership remotely disabled ignitions and set off car horns of more than 100 vehicles sold at his old workplace, police said.

Police say that a man fired from a Texas car dealership remotely disabled ignitions and set off car horns of more than 100 vehicles sold at his old workplace.

Police in Austin, Texas, arrested Omar Ramos-Lopez, 20, on Wednesday, charging him with the felony of breaching computer security. According to police, although Ramos-Lopez's account was closed on dismissal, he used a former colleague's password to deactivate starters and set off car horns on clients' cars.

Ramos-Lopez was fired from the Texas Auto Centre dealership in Austin, which installs GPS devices that can prevent cars from starting. The GPS devices are used to repossess cars when buyers are overdue on their payments, said Jeremy Norton, a controller at the dealership where Ramos-Lopez worked. Car horns can be activated when repo agents go to collect vehicles and believe that owners are hiding them.

"We are taking extra measures to make sure this never happens again," Norton said.

Several car owners said they had to call tow trucks and were left stranded at work or home. "He caused these customers, now victims, to miss work," Austin police spokesperson Veneza Aguinaga said on Wednesday. "They didn't get paid. They had to get tow trucks. They didn't know what was going on with their vehicles."

Starting in mid-February, dealership employees noticed unusual changes to their business records. Someone was going into the system and changing customers' names, such as having dead rapper Tupac Shakur buying a 2009 vehicle, Norton said.

Soon, customers began calling saying that their cars wouldn't start or that their horns were going off incessantly, forcing them to disengage the battery. Norton said the dealership originally thought the cars had mechanical problems.

Then employees noticed someone had ordered US$130,000 (AU$140,830) in parts and equipment from the company that makes the GPS devices.

According to reports, police traced the breach via internet provider AT&T to Ramos-Lopez's IP address. If found guilty, he could be locked up for between 120 days and two years.

Norton said Ramos-Lopez didn't seem unusually upset about being fired.

"I think he thought what he was doing was a harmless prank," Norton said. "He didn't see the ramifications of it."