UK police have issued a warning to car owners to be vigilant against keyless car theft as we see a rise of 3.1% in vehicle crime between May and June of 2021 according to the National Police Chiefs’ Council.
It’s believed that a large part of this increase is due to criminal gangs using relay theft technology to steal vehicles quickly and quietly.
What is Keyless Car Theft?
So, what is keyless car theft? Very simply it’s a crime where a thief steals a vehicle without needing to first steal the keys.
More and more modern vehicles come with keyless entry, which is where you simply need to have a fob near the vehicle in order to open it.
With cars that have keyless entry and start technology, you can then start the engine with the press of a button as long as the signal from the fob is detected within the vehicle.
There are some models that have keyless entry but still require a key to be inserted in order to start the vehicle, and these are more difficult for thieves to steal with relay technology.
Some manufacturers use an app on your mobile phone rather than a physical fob to unlock and lock the vehicle which is also susceptible to hacking from criminals.
This is a crime that targets modern cars that have keyless entry technology, so drivers with an older model aren’t at risk of keyless theft but should still take steps to ensure they protect their cars from theft.
How Does Keyless Theft Work?
There are a few ways in which a thief can use keyless technology to steal your vehicle which include:
We’ll explore each of these in detail below as well as provide you with some helpful advice on how you can keep your car safe from these techniques.
Keyless entry for your vehicle works by having a fob, RFID card or smartphone that emits a short-range radio signal that reaches just a few yards, and is recognised by the car. Once the car receives the signal it then allows the vehicle to be unlocked, usually by pressing a button on the door handle.
Once the vehicle is unlocked and you are inside with the fob, the car then uses the same principle to start the engine with the press of a button.
In order to steal a vehicle two thieves will usually work together, with one thief holding a wireless transmitter held up to near the property where the keys are to capture the signal from the genuine vehicle key which then relays it to the car, tricking it into believing that the key is within range and opening when the second thief presses the entry button.
Once inside the vehicle, the process can be repeated to start the engine and then it can be driven away. Alternatively, thieves might use a blank fob and programme this to work with the car.
This is currently the most common type of keyless theft that occurs.
Another method that thieves can use is to jam the signal of your key fob which prevents the vehicle from being locked.
This is done by using a small device that transmits on the same radio frequency as the fob, and so when drivers click the button to lock the vehicle it does not work.
Thieves can then enter the unlocked vehicle at a later time when the owner has moved away.
No matter how they gain entry to the vehicle, if a car engine is turned on with the push of a start button rather than a key that turns the ignition then they can be fairly simple and quick for a thief to take.
Every new car from the last ten plus years has to be fitted with a standard diagnostic port so that garages can use this for diagnosis and software updates. However, computer hackers have developed a device that can be plugged into this port, load the vehicle’s software and then program a blank key fob to pair it with the car.
This new fob can then be used to start the engine and lock / unlock the vehicle once the thieves have taken it.
The entire process can be completed in just a few minutes.
There are some devices that thieves can use that capture the signal drivers use when locking their vehicles. These devices will then work out the code used to lock and unlock the vehicle.
This is not currently a very popular method, but some experts believe that thieves may invest in this technology in the coming years. Car manufacturers are continuously developing and using more sophisticated anti-theft coding on their vehicles which makes this method less successful than others and is likely to continue to do so.
As more vehicles become compatible with smartphone apps criminals are also trying to find a way to use this technology to their advantage.
At the minute thieves can download the same app and try to log in using the owner’s details, which they can steal or guess. Once logged onto the app they can then use this to unlock the vehicle and steal it.
Some also allow digital keys to be shared from one smartphone to another if you want to allow your partner or a family member to drive your car. However, this is another area that criminals can exploit in order to steal your vehicle.
1. Always lock your car – whether you’re stepping away for two minutes to run the shopping trolley back or parked up for the night you should always ensure your vehicle is locked.
2. Park in a safe location – if you have off-road parking then utilise this and park your vehicle close to your house as this makes it higher risk for criminals as you’re more likely to hear or see them when they attempt to take the vehicle. If you do not have off-street parking then we recommend parking your vehicle in a well-lit section of the road, which increases visibility and risk for criminals.
The same principle applies when out and about and parking your vehicle. Use a well-lit area, where your vehicle is clearly visible, and if possible opt for a car park with barriers. Barriers will make it more difficult for the criminal to get very far if they do manage to get into your vehicle, and this further deters them from attempting to steal it.
3. Keep your keys away from the front door – whether your keys have keyless entry technology or not we advise not to keep them by the door. It’s easy to simply put your keys down as soon as you’re in the house, and then they’re in a convenient location when you’re ready to head out again. However, it’s also easier for thieves to access them as well. Not only does it make relay theft easier, but if they can see your keys within reach of the door then they could grab them and steal your vehicle and possessions from the house.
4. Use a security device – if your vehicle does not come with an alarm fitted then you might consider having one added. An alarm will not only deter criminals but will alert people around your vehicle that someone is attempting to steal it.
Alternatively, you might consider a more old school option, like a steering wheel lock. Just the sight of one will deter criminals.
Other low tech options include a gearstick lock, which works in a similar way but is placed on the gearstick rather than the steering wheel. You can also get a clutch lock that goes onto the clutch pedal to prevent the car from being drivable.
There are also wheel locks though these can be bulkier and more time consuming to put on and take off.
5. Don’t leave registration documents in the vehicle – this is an important one to keep in mind as many drivers keep their logbook in the car when parked overnight. If your vehicle is stolen and the logbook, also known as the V5C, is there then the thief can complete the new owner section and send it off to have the vehicle legally transferred to them.
How to Stop Keyless Car Theft
As well as the above general tips there are also specific things that you can do to prevent relay theft.
The first thing that you can do is ensure you stay up to date with the latest software for your vehicle and fob. This ensures that any bug fixes and additional security protection is uploaded as soon as possible to prevent criminals from taking advantage of your older software, which might not be as secure.
Some key fobs can be turned off, if your fob has this ability then we recommend using it as it prevents thieves from being able to relay the signal.
If you are not able to switch the key off then you should purchase a faraday pouch. These cases block the signal from your key and so again stop thieves from being able to relay it with a booster so they can steal your car.
Even if you are able to turn your key off you might choose to invest in one of these bags instead, as the process for switching on and off the fob can be complex and time-consuming so many drivers find it easier to just slip their key fob into a bag.
These pouches are fairly cheap, and you can pick one up for as little as £10. They’re available from a lot of retails both online and in store, and you can find them on Amazon as well as Halfords and similar stores.
Whether your car has keyless entry or not we also recommend looking at a GPS or tracking device that you can put in the vehicle. This will help you to locate and recover the vehicle in the event that it is stolen.