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Disgruntled hacker remotely disables 100 cars

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(Read caption) Forget that key. If you lease your car, there's a chance the dealership could shut down the vehicle remotely.

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And you thought sudden acceleration and faulty brakes were bad.

In the college town of Austin, Texas, a disgruntled hacker apparently managed to override a remote vehicle-immobilization system called Webtech Plus, effectively shutting down dozens of cars and setting off alarms on dozens more. According to Wired News, the alleged hacker is Omar Ramos-Lopez, a 20-year-old Texas resident.

In February, Mr. Ramos-Lopez was laid off from his job at Texas Auto Center, a used car dealership. Within a week, the troubles began.

“We initially dismissed it as mechanical failure,” Texas Auto Center manager Martin Garcia told Wired. “We started having a rash of up to a hundred customers at one time complaining. Some customers complained of the horns going off in the middle of the night. The only option they had was to remove the battery.”

The alleged capers of Ramos-Lopez have shone a spotlight on vehicle-immobilization systems, which allow car dealerships to power down cars in the case of delinquent payments. Texas Auto Center, for instance, reportedly kept a database of more than 1,000 customers; if a customer began missing payments, an employee would sign onto the database, and use Webtech Plus to turn off the automobile through the same network technology that powers pagers.

Ramos-Lopez, who was eventually apprehended by a high-tech crimes unit in Austin, broke into the database using another employee's account, Wired reports. “Omar was pretty good with computers,” said Martin Garcia, the Auto Center manager.

Many analysts have argued that vehicle-immobilization systems are a clear violation of customers' rights. "I think it's the level of control that bothers me," Ken McEldowney, executive director of Consumer Action, a national non-profit group based in San Francisco, told a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot four years ago, when the systems were first gaining popularity.

"It just sounds like Big Brother run amok," McEldowney said. "There's got to be a more respectful, less intrusive way of doing this that isn't so demeaning."

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