Student sues Ford claiming smugglers stole key codes to plant pot

Life along the border with Mexico and the United States carries a special set of hazards. Take for an extreme example people who need to cross the bridges between Juarez and El Paso on a daily basis — and have been targeted by drug gangs who break into their cars, plant drugs and then have them retrieved on the other side, all without the owners knowledge.

After being snared in one such scheme that nearly put him in federal prison, one Texas resident has sued Ford, claiming the automaker made it all too easy for unscrupulous locksmiths to duplicate his keys, as they did with at least three other people to haul some 500 lbs. of pot across the border.

According to the El Paso Times, Ricardo Magallanes, a student at the University of Texas El Paso, was apprehended in November 2010 when U.S. border agents found 112 pounds of marijuana stuffed in two duffle bags in the trunk of his 2007 Ford Focus. Magallanes spent six months in jail and was facing a 3-1/2 year sentence when federal prosecutors withdrew charges against him and four other people after strong evidence emerged that a Mexican drug ring had targeted their vehicles as secret mules.

In his lawsuit, Magallanes' attorneys say Ford made it easy for a Texas locksmith to access the codes inscribed in its keys via a company database through a contact at a Dallas Ford dealership. Similar scams across the nation have been used by thieves to steal cars and trucks off the street by making keys curbside. Magallanes contends Ford's systems knew exactly when the key codes for his car were shared — two months before his bust — but Ford didn't notify him of the breach or do anything to stop the illicit access. Four of the five cars snared by the ring were Fords, and according to the FBI, the Dallas dealership had downloaded more than 5,000 codes in 18 months for vehicles across the United States.

In its reply, Ford says it can't be held legally responsible for what happened to Magallanes, since it didn't employ any of the people who used the copied keys, and asked a federal judge to dismiss his suit; so far the judge has allowed it to continue, pending discovery. But as with the hackers who took control of a car from the back seat and the revelation of how some key codes can be cracked, we've entered the era where the electronic security measures relied on by automakers for years seem shakier than ever.

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