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Fending off the techno-thieves


THE DAYS of hotwiring cars are long gone. Today’s thieves use a variety of sophisticated techniques to gain access to cars and start the engine. The police and the insurance industry are playing catch-up as techniques evolve and adapt quickly to modern cars.


Below we outline the most common methods used to break into and make off with vehicles that have keyless entry systems and keyless start buttons — and how to protect yourself from them.


Car theft: signal jamming

What is signal jamming? 

This is the most common way thieves gain access to a car. A device transmitting on the same radio frequency as remote key fobs is used to jam the signal that locks the car. The gadget might be in the pocket of a crook in a car park, or left in shrubbery near a driveway being targeted. When owners press the lock button on their key fob, the command is prevented from reaching their vehicle and it remains unlocked. Thieves are left with an open door.

  • Used for: Gaining access to vehicles, usually to steal valuables inside.
  • Avoid being a victim: Make sure the indicators flash when you press the lock button and listen for the clunk of locks.

Car theft: signal relay

What is signal relaying? 

Keyless systems use a simple process. Vehicles emit a short-range “friendly” radio signal that carries only a few yards. When the correct key fob is close by, the fob recognises the signal and transmits its own code, instructing the vehicle to unlock the doors. The same process is used for the ignition on cars with start buttons.

Thieves have begun using wireless transmitters held close to a target vehicle to capture its radio transmission. This is relayed to another device held by an accomplice close to the key fob, which might be in the pocket of the owner at a motorway services, or by a window at home. It fools the fob into thinking that it is next to the car, prompting the release of the unlock code. Once the thief is inside the car, the process can be repeated to start the engine.

  • Used for: Gaining access and then stealing vehicles.
  • Avoid being a victim: Keep keys out of sight at home. When out, carry them in a shielded wallet or aluminium tin.

Car theft: key programming

What is key programming? 

Whether thieves break a window or use the jamming technique above, once they’re inside the car, those vehicles with a start button rather than an ignition key can be simple to steal.

Every car sold in the past 10 years has been required to have a standard diagnostic port fitted. This is typically located in the front footwell. Computer hackers have developed devices that plug into the port, boot up a vehicle’s software and then program a blank key fob. In keyless cars this can be used to start the engine as well as unlock the doors. The time needed for the programming process is as short as 14 seconds. The cost of programming gadgets on foreign websites is as low as &10.

  • Used for: Stealing a vehicle once the crook is inside.
  • Avoid being a victim: Fit a lock to your diagnostic port and use additional security such as a steering-wheel lock.

Care theft: close range

What is close range testing? 

Some keyless fobs may still be in range of the car when if left inside the house near enough to the vehicle. Thieves can discreetly check by trying the door handles, which may unlock the doors, but are unlikely to be able to drive off in the car if they do get inside: keyless systems require a fob to be inside the car before the engine will start.

Even if owners do not fall victim to thieves, they may end up with a flat battery because the proximity of the key keeps electronic systems on standby.

  • Used for: Gaining access to a vehicle.
  • Avoid being a victim: Find a safe place for your keys at home and check to ensure they are out of range.

Car theft: code grabbing

What is code grabbing?

Thieves armed with advanced gadgets are thought to lie in wait for desirable cars. When the owner locks the doors, the signal is captured by the device, which then calculates the unlock code. Though there is little evidence this method is currently being used, some experts are convinced it is a looming threat. Others say it is impossible.

  • Used for: Gaining access to a vehicle.
  • Avoid being a victim: Lock the car with a key if possible.

Car theft: app hacking

What is app hacking? 

This method is rarely used but could become popular as car makers attempt to connect their vehicles with owners’ smartphones. Apps that allow drivers to unlock their car can let thieves do the same thing on their own phone if they can log in to the app as the vehicle’s owner. All they need is the password, which they may steal or guess.

  • Used for: Gaining access to a vehicle.
  • Avoid being a victim: Create a secure password with letters and numbers.

Published in: Newsletter



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