Close cooperation between Lithuanian and German authorities, together with support from Europol and Eurojust, has led to the dismantling of an international criminal network of car thieves. The Criminal Investigation Directorate of the Heilbronn Police Headquarters, the Klaipėda Criminal Police in Lithuania and the Public Prosecutor's Offices in Heilbronn and Lithuania played central roles in this takedown.
An Operational Task Force had been set up to identify the coordinating role of two High-value Targets, who were taken into custody based on European arrest warrants, during a joint action day in December 2023 in Lithuania.
Using sophisticated technology to circumvent keyless entry systems, the criminal network led by the two Lithuanians had stolen at least 28 luxury vehicles in Germany, causing over EUR 1.8 million in damages. The vehicles were then either smuggled to Lithuania, where they received new forged documents, or dismantled in garages to be sold as spare parts.
During the action day, houses were searched simultaneously in several Lithuanian cities. In addition to the arrest of the two criminal masterminds behind the criminal network, a large amount of evidence was seized. Officers found raw materials for the production of vehicle number plates, as well as forged registration stickers in a metal processing workshop with embossing tools.
A range of sophisticated printing machinery was seized including commercial printers, CO2 laser engraving machines, copy films, polymer plates, chemicals, embossing tools, cutting and punching machines, UV curing machines and presses. In addition, law enforcement authorities seized property worth approximately EUR 1 million.
Operational Task Force ‘KEYLESS’
In the run-up to the action day, law enforcement agencies from both Germany and Lithuania were supported by Europol in an extensive investigative effort triggered by a sharp increase in car thefts. Initially, a Lithuanian national was arrested in 2020 and subsequently convicted on charges related to organised gang crime. However, investigations following this initial success unveiled a vast criminal network involved not only in organised property crime but also international drug trafficking, money laundering and counterfeiting.
In order to unravel the network’s structure and identify its members, the Operational Task Force (OTF) ‘KEYLESS’ was set up earlier this year. With the aim of further strengthening and optimising international cooperation, the participants in the OTF analysed hundreds of thousands of encrypted chats and took measures to track down gang members in Lithuania. In addition, the OTF identified crime enablers such as counterfeiters and business infrastructure operating as counterfeit workshops.
Convenient but vulnerable
Vehicles equipped with remote keyless systems use a radio signal to recognise the key when it is near the vehicle. While convenient, keyless entry systems are also vulnerable: thieves use the radio communication between the vehicle and the key to gain unauthorised access to the car. To do this, they use signal enhancers to intercept and extend the radio communication between the vehicle and the key, thus setting up a relay station. This technology simulates an authorised key in the vehicle, despite it not being there.
Protect yourself against car thieves:
Do not leave the key near the house or apartment door.
Shield the radio signal (e.g. with aluminium covers or a tin can), then carry out a test in the vehicle. You will only be sufficiently protected if the shielded key does not work directly in the vehicle.
Watch out for people with large bags or briefcases behaving suspiciously around you when leaving your vehicle. They could be professional car thieves.
You can also ask the vehicle manufacturer whether it is possible to temporarily deactivate your vehicle’s keyless entry system. With some keys, the keyless function can be switched off completely by pressing the lock button on the key twice, for example. Your dealer or garage may also be able to advise you on the options available specifically for your vehicle.
Europol contributed extensively to this EMPACT-supported operation by providing awareness sessions on encrypted data analysis and by hosting table-top exercises with leading investigators to assess and exploit incoming intelligence from different sources. Europol experts supported the national investigations by implementing advanced analytical techniques used to pinpoint additional accomplices in the criminal network. Furthermore, intelligence products were shared, including the analysis of encrypted data attributed to key criminal actors. Finally, Europol also provided on-the-spot support during the action day.