Key Crime

Thieves are not handing out key rings at gas stations that enable them to track potential victims.


The above-quoted warnings about crooks handing out free key rings or key fobs that are actually small (solar-powered!) transmitters, used to track potential victims for later burglaries and carjackings, began circulating in August 2008. Aside from some technologically questionable aspects to these warnings, one prominent point of skepticism is the lack of obvious utility behind the scheme — that is, how would the ability to track unknown, randomly-selected motorists facilitate the commission of burglaries and carjackings? Especially since both of those crimes are overwhelmingly crimes of opportunity, engaged in as perpetrators spot or stumble across their chances, rather than crimes typically pursued through the elaborate staking out and tracking of targets.

In this case we don't need to engage in any skeptical speculation, though, because we know the origins of this rumor: It began with the free distribution of completely innocuous, (light-activated) flashing key rings at gas stations in South Africa as a promotional device for gasoline retailer Caltex (a brand name of the Chevron Corporation), and the claims of criminal activity associated with those key rings are completely false:

E-mails flying through the electronic ether in South Africa warning of "tracking devices" fitted into free key rings are false and fuel retailer Caltex is infuriated that its promotion at service stations has become a victim of urban myth.

Police spokesperson Superintendent Vincent Mdunge said such claims were untrue and police are now investigating where these e-mails originated from.

"It is purely a hoax and motorists need not have any fears. Such assumptions are really ludicrous. We will definitely open criminal charges against these hoaxsters once they are caught."

Caltex reassured customers that key rings being handed out at petrol stations do not have tracking devices on them and that this was part of a brand awareness campaign to promote Caltex's "Power Diesel brand", said spokesperson Miranda Anthony.

"We have been running a Caltex Power Diesel promotion through our service station network. Caltex branded key rings were issued to our diesel customers as part of this promotion. These are novelty items and have a flashing device meant to create product awareness."

An example of a Caltex Power Diesel promotional key ring can be seen in the following video:

In a nutshell: Yes, in 2008 a South African gasoline retailer gave out free "solar" key rings; no, the key rings did not have transmitters and weren't being used by criminals to track potential victims.

While our first sighting of the warning dates to August 2008 and places the suspicious activity in South Africa, numerous versions altering the nationality of the supposed bad guys and/or the country where the mayhem was taking place have surfaced since then:

  • In another August 2008 version, the criminal syndicates were said to be composed of Ghanaians and Nigerians operating in Nairobi, Kenya.
  • In September 2008, the warning named only Nigerians as the syndicate members, with no information given as to where the key rings were being foisted upon motorists.
  • In a May 2010 version, the criminals (of no stated nationality) were said to be operating in Pakistan and handing out their doctored key rings in "bazaars, petrol stations or parking lots."
  • A version circulating in the summer of 2010 offered no nationality for the ill-intentioned, nor did it explicitly name the country where the key rings were supposedly being given away; but in its alteration of "petrol stations or parking lots" to "gas stations or parking lots" it Americanized the warning, thereby shifting the purported crime venue to the U.S. and Canada.
  • A November 2010 version circulated via cell phone text messages and Facebook postings.
  • April 2012 versions circulated via e-mail bore signature blocks of the Richland County Clerk of Court (South Carolina), a training director for Lugoff Toyota/Ford (South Carolina), and a sheriff at the Whiteside County Sheriff's Office (Illinois).
  • A January 2013 recirculation of this item was described as a "Warning from Harris County Constable."

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