It’s not too long ago since car theft was an all too common occurrence, with seemingly every little scallywag learning the noble arts of smashing windows, breaking off steering locks and hot-wiring cars in seconds.
Fortunately, however, improvements in car design, notably more effective alarm systems and the increasing adoption of immobilisers, saw the number of car thefts, at least of more recent cars plummet. Car theft then became largely the preserve of more dedicated villains prepared to take the substantial risks of breaking into houses to steal keys, for possession of the keys, in general, became the only way to enter and start most modern cars. To put some numbers around this, in 2002 there were a horrendous 318,000 cars stolen; by 2014 the annual figure had dropped to 74,600.
Fitment of immobilisers was made possible only by the increased adoption of electronics on board cars, a change which has also seen major benefits in safety, emissions, and fuel economy to name but a few areas.
Yet, now, electronics, once the strong point of car design, are fast becoming the weak link in the automotive chain, for unscrupulous characters have devised equipment to overcome those high levels of security which have been built into virtually every car for the last decade or so.
These devices work by intercepting the signals transmitted by the car key to the car itself and replicating them in some way to fool the car into thinking the key is present in the car. Initially, these devices relied on the would-be thief being in close proximity to the car when it was being locked by the owner, say in a car park, the device then copying the key code allowing the miscreant to re-use the code and open the car at leisure. Once inside the car the thief plugs a hand-held ‘key fob’ programmer, freely and it seems legally available on the internet, into the car’s on-board diagnostics (OBD) port to record the car’s vital systems data. Car makers are obliged by law to permit rival services to access the OBD, hence the existence of such devices. Once the fob is programmed – which takes less than 15 seconds – the thief is in control of your car.
The most recent type of car theft crime, which is increasing rapidly, is both even more insidious and instant, however. Armed once again with technology apparently easily available on the internet, they can open, start and drive away many makes and models of car in seconds, noise and damage free.
How do they do this? Well, many cars today feature what is known as “keyless” entry where, provided you have the key in your pocket or handbag, the car will pick up the signals which are emitted continuously by the key, unlocking automatically when you touch the door handle. The car can then also detect when the key is inside the car, allowing you to push the starter button and drive away.
In theory, these systems should be pretty foolproof, not least because the strength of signals emitted by the key is deliberately set low enough that they will only trigger the car’s locks if the keys are within one metre (3’) or so of the car. However, the illicit devices now available to the lawbreaker allow them to detect the signals from the key whilst it is inside your home, then relay the signal to a second device held close to the car to open up the car and, once inside, allow the car to be started and driven away. And all in near silence, in less than the time it takes to describe it here.
Anyone who doubts the reality of this need look no further than a recent video clip shown by the BBC, which showed the process being used to take away a Mercedes Benz from the owners driveway in seconds, albeit in this instance unwittingly captured by CCTV, as shown on this YouTube link courtesy of West Midlands Police:
And it’s not only upmarket marques which are affected, most mainstream models such as the Honda Jazz now have keyless entry available either as standard or as an option. For example, the Metropolitan Police says that of the 10,000 vehicles stolen in London alone last year without their owners’ keys, the haul included Ford Fiestas and Transits as well as the more expected high-value Land Rovers and BMW’s.
The scale of the problem cannot be over-emphasised: Police forces across the country report significant increases in the number of “keys not present” car thefts where the method has clearly been used. In fact, Tracker, the security product company report that over 70% of cars stolen last year were taken whilst the keys were still in the owner’s possession.
One small consolation is that when the phenomenon started, it was the car owner who had some explaining to do to the Police and insurance company, for the popular belief was that car security had become so thorough that theft was impossible without the keys, casting suspicion that the owner was making a spurious claim. Fortunately or otherwise, theft of this type is now a well-recognised occurrence.
So what can we do to avoid falling victim to this type of theft if you have a “keyless entry” car? First and foremost is to keep the keys at least 2 metres (6′) away from your house walls, which for most of us means not dropping the keys on a table or windowsill just inside the front door………..which is exactly where the would-be thief expects them to be and provides him easy access to intercept the key’s signal just by standing on your front doorstep!
Secondly, consider popping your keys into some sort of shielded container from which their electronic signals cannot escape. The obvious one is to keep your keys in a metal box – a biscuit tin or similar – which can work well at home.
However, the biscuit tin solution is hardly practical when out and about, even though you are still at risk when leaving the car in say a busy car park where a device-equipped thief may be lurking. So it’s a good idea to invest in one of the shielded pouches which are now readily available. These pouches – their scientific name is an RFID or Faraday cage – are flexible but contain a metallic mesh which, like the biscuit tin solution, effectively blocks the key’s signal whilst inside the wallet.
And the final solution is to wind the clock back a decade or two and invest in a substantial steering wheel lock which bears a Thatcham approval (the organisation responsible for assessing car security), an effective deterrent as they usually take much time and effort to remove, qualities a thief rarely possesses!
It’s true that none of these solutions avoids unwanted hassle that we can all do without in our busy lives, However, that brief hassle is nothing compared to the trauma of finding your pride and joy no longer parked where you left it, a loss which is becoming increasingly likely!