After getting locked out of their Toyota Estima minivan for almost two months, a Canadian family has regained access to their car after a hacker agreed to help them.

The story starts back in May this year, when John and Maria Higgins, a couple from the town of Surrey in Canada, bought a used Toyota Estima minivan imported from Japan from a local car dealership.

When they picked up the car, the couple received only one car key, unlike most car owners who receive two or three. At the time, the couple didn't know the car utilized a one-of-a-kind unique car key.

Couple loses car key while on a family vacation

A month later, on June 2, the couple went on a family road trip to the city of Victoria where they lost the key while walking around the city. John suspects he lost the keys while he bent down to tie one of his son's shoes.

The family's vacation was cut short when they realized they had no keys. Things got an order of magnitude worse when their car dealership told them the couldn't replicate the lost keys, and neither did their US and Japanese partners.

In a desperate situation, the family turned to local press for help. Their story went viral when a local newspaper — Victoria Buzz — published their plea for help on Facebook.

Higgins family lost keys
Higgins family lost keys

"This vehicle is a Japanese import with a sophisticated immobilizer, and the key has a chip in it that can't be duplicated by North American Toyota dealers," Higgins wrote in the Facebook post.

"I bought the vehicle a month ago from a dealer on the mainland who led me to believe they would be receiving another key for it from Japan in the few weeks following our purchase," Higgins also added. "This was not the case; as the manager just informed me, most cars sold by auction in Japan come with only one key and they haven't gotten anything else from the auction since."

Car remained stranded in Victoria for two weeks

The couple offered a 500 CAD reward (500 USD) for the return of their car key, but nothing came out of it. At one point, the family even tried dropping shiny objects on the ground so crows would pick them up and lead the Higgins to their nest, where they hoped to find their car key.

The family's car remained stranded in a Victoria parking lot for almost two weeks before being towed back to a local mechanic's garage.

Higgins family Toyota Estima minivan stranded in a Victoria parking lot
Higgins family Toyota Estima minivan stranded in a Victoria parking lot

Speaking to local press, the family said that several people offered to hack the minivan, but they declined their help without some kind of professional guarantee. Local mechanics advised against letting someone hack the car as there was a risk of permanently destroying the entire car. The problem came from the Toyota minivan's hybrid engine system.

"In the hybrid system, the engine may work, but the wheels are connected to an electric motor that charges the battery. If the wheels spin, but the computer isn’t properly configured to recognize that, he said the batteries could charge until they explode, for example," Higgins told a local newspaper. "If it was just a gas engine, this would be a different story."

For the past two months, the family borrowed a car from a family member but eventually decided that something needed to be done.

Family agrees to car hack despite fear of permanent damage

It was the car dealership that provided the answer and connected the family with a trusted mechanic from the city of Richmond. The mechanic reached out to a local hacker who asked local press not to mention his real name.

The hacker and the mechanic broke into the car, stripped its dashboard, and connected various wires and chips to the vehicle's main dashboard. Eventually, they were able to identify the immobilizer and reprogram it to work with new keys.

The Higgins family received three new keys for their car, but not for free. In total, this whole ordeal cost the family nearly 4,500 CAD (3,500 USD) — 3,000 CAD for the manual labor, 770 CAD for programming new keys, and 760 CAD in towing costs.

Fortunately for the family of four, Velocity Cars in Burnaby — the car dealership that imported and sold the used minivan — agreed to foot half the bill.

The family told local press they stored one of the three new keys in a bank safety box, just to be sure this won't happen again.

Image credits: Victoria Buzz, CTV News