For John and Maria Higgins, a simple loss of keys was about to become an adventure involving tow trucks, mechanics, locksmiths, crows (yes crows) and eventually a hero hacker.
When the Higgins family bought their used Toyota Estima minivan, they only received one set of keys instead of the usual two or even three. Unbeknownst to the family, they had purchased a vehicle with a one-of-a-kind key that could not be duplicated.
“This vehicle is a Japanese import with a sophisticated immobilizer, and the key has a chip in it that can’t be duplicated by North American Toyota dealers. I bought the vehicle a month ago from a dealer on the mainland who led me to believe they would be receiving another key for it from Japan in the few weeks following our purchase. This was not the case; as the manager just informed me, most cars sold by auction in Japan come with only one key and they haven’t gotten anything else from the auction since.” wrote Higgins in a Victoria Buzz Facebook post.
John Higgins tried everything he could think of to find the lost keys, offering a reward, looking in trash cans, even leaving shiney objects near the minivan and following the crows that picked them up in hopes of discovering the keys whereabouts.
After the Facebook post went viral, the family had several offers by the hacking community to hack the car and unlock/start it but they were advised against it because it could cause irreversible damage.
Higgins told a local newspaper, “In the hybrid system, the engine may work, but the wheels are connected to an electric motor that charges the battery. If the wheels spin, but the computer isn’t properly configured to recognize that, the batteries could charge until they explode, for example… If it was just a gas engine, this would be a different story.”
“We’re in a twilight zone of car situations.”
After the van sat in a parking lot for two weeks, it was towed to a local dealership where it remained for almost two months. The dealership reached out to a trusted mechanic who then reached out to a local hacker who asked to remain anonymous.
The hacker and the mechanic successfully entered the minivan, removed the dash and identified the immobilizer in order to reprogram it to work with new… less one-of-a-kind, keys.
The ordeal cost the family around $3,500 and the dealership that they bought the minivan from has agreed to pay half of the costs. Also, the family says they have locked up one of the three new sets of keys in a safety deposit box.