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Keyless car theft: What is it? How do you prevent it?

Keyless entry is a perk offered with many new car releases, locking and unlocking your car doors when you’re in or out of proximity to your car via fob. But whereas we might have traded in the inconvenience of rooting in your bag or pockets for your keys, with it has come the increased risk of relay car theft, or keyless car theft to give it its more popular name.

How does keyless car entry work?

The fob, which you have in lieu of a traditional ignition key, contains a chip which will identify a corresponding signal broadcast by the car. When you typically put your hand on the door handle, it will unlock.

Some new cars now even feature a keyless boot opening, with sensors on the back bumper picking up the signal from your fob and allowing you to shake your foot underneath the bumper so it will open like a magic trick. This is especially handy if you have your hands full of shopping or children who are easily impressed.

Even if your new car doesn’t have keyless entry, chances are it might now feature keyless start/stop where a button is pressed to start the ignition when the key fob is inside the cabin. All of these things offer a level of convenience which  has become priceless for those in the market for a new car, but it comes at a cost…

What is keyless car theft?

Keyless car theft exploits the above conveniences to give thieves easy access to your vehicle, allowing them to open the doors to and drive off in minutes without even needing your fob. How?

Keyless car theft infographic Thatcham Research

As highlighted in the above infographic from Thatcham Research, a team of two will work together with the first car thief standing by the targeted vehicle with a transmitter while the other uses an amplifier device to try and pick up the key fob signal. Once it has been picked up the transmitter replicates the signal of the car fob and relays it to the car. This allows the thieves to get in, start the ignition, and drive away.

Watch the below footage from West Midlands Police to see just how quick it can happen:

Keyless car theft on the rise

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) recently revealed that, between May and June 2021, vehicle crime increased by 3.1 percent. The bulk of this was identified as keyless theft.

National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Vehicle Crime, Assistant Chief Constable Jenny Sims, said: “Whilst the rapid development of technology has dramatically improved the experience of drivers it has also allowed criminals to exploit weaknesses in electronic security.

“We are working closely with car manufacturers to help them design out crime by sharing intelligence and equipment seized from criminals.”

Earlier this month, seven members of an organised crime gang in Leicestershire were convicted for over 50 keyless thefts totalling £2.4m worth of vehicles.

What are manufacturers doing about it?

In 2019, Ford were the first manufacturer to offer motion sensor enabled fobs as a quick fix for relay car theft. The motion sensor detects when the car has been stationary and triggers a sleep mode in the engine. This means the fob will no longer respond to attempts to relay its signal, with the car only restored back to usability if the owner is in proximity and moves the key.

Simon Hurr, Ford security specialist, said: “The online availability of [relay car theft] devices […] has long been a problem for Ford, our industry and crime fighters. We are pleased to respond with a simple but effective solution – swiftly implemented to help protect owners of our top-selling cars.”

Since then other manufacturers such as Audi, BMW and Volkswagen have followed suit and begun to offer motion sensor-enabled fobs.

How can I avoid keyless car theft?

If you have a keyless fob for your car and a motion sensor isn’t offered as an option by the manufacturer, there are a variety of other ways you can protect yourself from keyless car theft. These include:

  • Purchase a Faraday Pouch: Available from as little as £5, these pouches perfectly fit your key fob and block RFID, Bluetooth, and WiFi signals to ensure your key fob signal can’t be replicated. Ensure the pouch is hidden out of sight when the car is not in use.
  • Use a Ghost Immobiliser: This aftermarket immobiliser will add another layer of security to your car and works in the same way as the PIN on your debit card. By using the buttons on your steering wheel, door panels and centre console, you can create a unique code that needs to be entered before you can drive your car. However, please check the terms of your car finance agreement prior to installing this.
  • Buy a steering wheel lock: While it might seem a little bit retro, you can’t beat the classics! A steering wheel lock is one of the sturdiest and most secure ways to prevent your vehicle being stolen and is why motorhome owners continue to employ them.

“We urge manufacturers to bring keyless technology to market in secure form and remove from drivers the onus to provide additional security.” comments Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer, Thatcham Research. “Closer collaboration on the design and implementation of new technologies is the key to identifying vulnerabilities.”

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