How to avoid keyless car theft

The number of cars being stolen via keyless theft is increasing: here's what you can do to keep your car safe

Car theft has risen sharply in the last few years, with the five-year period up to 2019 seeing a 48.7 per cent increase in the number of cars being stolen. Falling police officer numbers have been singled out by some experts as a main cause, as well as the increasing popularity of convenient ‘keyless start’ systems on cars. Not so long ago, a Germany motoring organisation tested 237 cars and their keyless systems, and only three were able to repel a keyless attack.

So how does keyless car theft work? What are car manufacturers doing to combat it? And what can you do to protect yourself and your car? Our handy guide explains all…

What is keyless theft?

The way which thieves steal cars without the car keys - something that’s also referred to as relay theft - is quite simply, although high-tech equipment is needed in order for it to work. First criminals search the darker regions of the internet to buy the relay amplifiers and relay transmitters needed to make the steal.

Next, they’ll target houses with desirable cars parked outside, and using their gadgets they can detect whether or not the vehicle uses a keyless entry and start system.

Working in pairs, one thief will stand by the car with the transmitter while a second carries the amplifier around the perimeter of the house. If the key is close enough, the amplifier will be able to boost its signal and direct it to the transmitter.

Skoda Superb keyless go

This transmitter then effectively becomes the key, and tricks the car into thinking the real key is nearby, whereupon the thieves are able to open the car, get in and drive away. The whole process can take as little as 60 seconds and can be completed in near silence and as for safety reasons the engine won't just cut out when the key is out of range, there is very little to stop the thieves.

Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer at Thatcham Research, the UK insurance industry’s research body said: “Our calculations suggest that one per cent of all cars on the road today have keyless entry systems, but this technology is trickling down from the premium sector to more affordable cars. Until recently, all keyless systems used the exact same technology, so they were all vulnerable.”

Clive Wain, head of police liaison at Tracker, a company that traces stolen cars, said police intelligence suggests keyless theft is linked to organised crime. “These criminals are very resourceful, moving from one commodity to the next,” he explained. “Many are now aware of and have the technology at hand to steal cars, so they have diversified to the sector.” 

According to Wain, authorities often have just hours to trace the car once it’s stolen. “Many vehicles will be shipped to Eastern Europe,” he said, “while police have also found an increasing number of chop-shops where prestige cars are broken down for parts within hours.” 

Richard Billyeald said the industry is also responding, adding: “Manufacturers are already working on new systems. A few new models already have set-ups that aren’t vulnerable to relay attacks. The functionality is the same, but they cannot be fooled by relay devices.” 

Billyeald added Thatcham Research will be updating its New Vehicle Security Assessment (NVSA) test in the future, telling us: “There’ll be greater emphasis on vehicle security to take into account things like keyless theft.” The NVSA influences insurance group ratings and Billyeald said that brands that haven’t theft-proofed their systems could see their group ratings go up as a result. 

Are keyless cars easier to steal?

This is the big question and, as always seems to be the case, there's no straightforward answer. First, it's important to understand what type of car we're talking about. Some models have keyless entry that unlocks the doors when the key is close-by but still have a conventional key that is physically put in the ignition to start the car. The cars that are vulnerable to relay theft are those with 'keyless entry and start' that allows the owner to get in a drive away without ever taking the key out of their pocket. 

Relay theft is nothing new so manufacturers and industry bodies have been working to combat it for a while. This means that even of the cars that do have keyless entry and start, the newer and more advanced models have systems designed to thwart the thieves. Some models are vulnerable, however, and thieves will target these, but these cars still tend to be modern designs with modern security systems that can mean they're harder to steal by conventional means than older cars that don't have keyless entry systems of any kind.

The general improvement in car security in recent years had seen more car thieves resort to breaking into houses to get the keys for cars because taking the vehicle without the key had become so much more difficult. The rise in relay theft did something to halt this trend but there are still various ways that the committed car thief will try to get their hands on your vehicle. Some types of car are stolen more than others it's hard to say with certainty whether one model of car with a certain type of technology is easier to steal overall than another. What you should always do is take every sensible precaution to ensure your car doesn't fall victim to the thieves. 

How to avoid keyless theft – top tips

Keyless theft sounds almost like the perfect crime – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to stop it from happening to you. We spoke to some of the industry’s leading security experts to find out what you can do.

Don’t forget the basics

Owners shouldn’t forget to take standard security measures, ensuring their car is properly locked and keeping keys far away from doors and windows. This will minimise the chances a crook will be able to find and amplify the key’s signal and is general good practice, as it’ll prevent thieves from easily breaking in and swiping them. Barrs also says owners can keep their car keys in a metal tin to block signals.

Can you switch off your key?

Richard Billyeald advises owners to investigate whether it’s possible to switch their key’s signal off, as some offer this function – though it’s not always obvious, requiring a double button press or a combination of pushes on the key. Check your manual to find out if your key has this function, or ask your dealer if it the system can be disabled.

Range Rover SVAutobiography - start stop

Physical barriers

You could also purchase an aftermarket security device such as a steering wheel lock, a driveway parking post, or even a wheel clamp. Even if the thieves are able to access and start your car, these should prevent them from driving away – and many criminals will consider bypassing these as they're too much hassle.

Tracking devices

Tracker told Auto Express that vehicles fitted with its tech have a 96 per cent recovery rate when stolen. The odds reduce to 50 per cent for those without, meaning a car tracking device is a excellent way to help ensure that, should the worst happen, your car is recovered. 

Signal-blocking pouches

Consider purchasing a Faraday pouch to keep your car key in. These pouches contain signal-blocking materials that stop your key transmitting its code, preventing crooks from being able to detect and amplify the signal.

But a Thatcham spokesman told us owners should be cautious about these bags, saying: “We have tested a few of the pouches and the ones we’ve assessed have worked, but we can’t guarantee they all will. Some pouches have two pockets, for example, only one of which will block signals, while there are so many on the market it’s simply not possible for us to test them all.”

Thatcham’s Richard Billyeald said owners should, therefore, test whether a pouch they’ve purchased works by putting the key in it and ensuring the car doesn’t unlock when they stand next to it. He added, however, that “keyless entry is a convenience feature, so pouches and the like arguably remove the convenience such systems are designed to offer.”

Is there anything more you can do?

Other steps you can take to keep your car safe include checking if there are any software updates for the car itself and remaining vigilant for unusual activity in your area.

Carmakers themselves are working on countermeasures to combat the issue of keyless theft, with new frequency technologies, software and keys among the developments taking place. Richard Billyeald added that “if owners are worried about keyless theft, they can contact their dealer to see if the system can be disabled.”

In 2017 Auto Express fell victim to keyless car thieves – read more about it here

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