Keyless theft is a relatively new phenomenon, but if the prevalence of recent reports is anything to go by, it’s a growing one – even our own editor was a victim.
In fact, experts consider keyless theft is partly to blame for a sharp increase in car theft, rates of which have leapt by almost a third since 2013, with 85,000 vehicles stolen in England and Wales last year. Vehicle security experts at Tracker, meanwhile, estimate 66 per cent of stolen cars are taken after being “electronically compromised”.
What is keyless theft?
The process criminals use to steal a car via keyless theft – also known as relay theft – is relatively simple. First, they buy a relay amplifier and a relay transmitter; these electronic gizmos can be purchased from the darker corners of the internet.
Next, they identify a house with a nice car parked outside and, by using these gadgets, can detect whether the car features keyless entry and go.
One criminal then stands by the car with his transmitter, while a second waves his amplifier around the perimeter of the house. If the car key is close enough the amplifier will detect its signal, amplify it and send it to the accomplice’s transmitter.
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.
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
Andy Barrs, head of police liaison at Tracker, says 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, meanwhile, chief technical officer at Thatcham, 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 or speak to your dealer to find out if your key has this function.
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 for being too much hassle.
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, remaining vigilant for unusual activity in your area and having an aftermarket immobiliser or tracker fitted.
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.”
How to avoid keyless theft