Photo: FCA

An international motorcycle gang known as the Hooligans pilfered more than 150 Jeeps over a three year period by accessing a proprietary database containing codes to create and duplicate keys for Wranglers, authorities said Wednesday. The operation was revealed in an unsealed criminal indictment that charged nine members of the Hooligans for their alleged role in the high-tech theft.

“The joy ride is over for these Hooligans,” said Deputy U.S. Attorney Mark Conover, in a we-gotcha statement that he surely was waiting to use his whole career.

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After the Jeeps—along with a number of motorcycles—were stolen in San Diego County, California, the indictment says the Hooligans moved them to Mexico, where they were sold or stripped for parts. The vehicles are valued at roughly $4.5 million. Three of the nine defendants were arrested as of Wednesday, while the remainder are believed to be in Mexico.

The operation dates to the summer of 2014, when multiple Jeep Wranglers were stolen in San Diego County. Authorities say most of the thefts occurred at night, and nearly every vehicle had an alarm.

Photo: DOJ

Weird, right? So, how’d these Hooligans do it?

According to the indictment (which you can view below), a group of “scouts” would set out and identify Jeeps to target days in advance. They’d soon after obtain the vehicle’s VIN number, which would be sent along to a key cutter.

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Here’s the fascinating part: The key cutter, the indictment says, obtained access to a proprietary database for creating and duplicating keys for Jeep Wranglers. Two codes would be obtained for the particular Jeep.

It’s unclear how they accessed the database, but it allowed for them to use one of the codes create a duplicate key. The key would then be provided to leaders of the group along with the second code, “which thieves would need in order to program the microchip within the key at the time of the theft,” the indictment says.

Upon arrival, the thieves would use a handheld device to disable the vehicle’s alarm and front lights, put the key into the ignition, program the duplicate key using a handheld electronic device to connect to the vehicle’s system to operate, and then drive away.

Authorities didn’t figure out the jig until September 2014, when a Jeep owner caught one of the thieves in action on a security camera. This is what she saw:

After corresponding with Chrysler about a list of 20 Jeeps stolen from the region, authorities say the company responded that a duplicate key had been requested for nearly every vehicle, and “every one of the keys had apparently been requested through the same dealership in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.”

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“After additional investigation, agents began interrupting Jeep thefts and made several arrests,” according to a Department of Justice press release. “Through these arrests, agents learned that the Tijuana-based Hooligan Motorcycle gang was behind the operation.”

The indictment lists charges of conspiracy to commit transportation of stolen vehicles in foreign commerce, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.