Amar Toor
Switched
March 19, 2010

  • A d v e r t i s e m e n t
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When Omar Ramos-Lopez was laid off from his job at Texas Auto Center last month, he decided to send his former employer a message… about 100 times. It turns out that Ramos-Lopez not only had an intimate knowledge of cars, but knew his way around computers, as well — and, in particular, around his company’s online vehicle-immobilization system.

With the help of a former colleague’s log-in information, the newly unemployed Ramos-Lopez logged on to Webtech Plus, a network that allows the Austin based Texas Auto Center employees to remotely disable (or set off horns on) cars that haven’t been paid for. Once he gained access to the system, Ramos-Lopez began running down the entire database of clients, in alphabetical order, routinely disabling their cars, setting off their horns, and vandalizing their stored records. After customers began pouring into Texas Auto Center with complaints, managers got suspicious, and decided to change the passwords for all employees. The rash of mysterious breakdowns subsided, and police soon traced the hacker’s IP address to Ramos-Lopez, who was slapped with computer intrusion charges on Tuesday.

While the system won’t disable a car’s ignition while it’s running, it definitely serves as a not-so-friendly reminder for the owner to pay up. As Wired reports, this passive-aggressive form of a payment reminder has been met with controversy ever since it was introduced about a decade ago. Many argue that disabling a car unnecessarily humiliates customers who might be strapped for cash, or, at the very worst, may leave drivers stranded in times of emergency. Others, though, see it as an informal way to extend credit to those who may not be able to qualify for a loan otherwise.

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