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Keyless car theft prevention

Alert message sent 30/07/2021 15:07:00

Information sent on behalf of Durham Constabulary


Six types of keyless car theft
1. Signal relaying
Keyless systems use a simple process. Fobs, compatible smartphones or RFID cards emit a short-range “friendly” radio signal that carries only a few yards. When the associated vehicle is close by (usually within a few metres), the car recognises the signal and allows the doors to be unlocked — often by simply touching a door handle. The same process is used for the ignition on cars with start buttons; the digital key needs to be inside the car itself.

Relay thieves use wireless transmitters held up to the front door or window of a house (or the handbag/pocket of a car owner), to capture the signal from a genuine digital key and relay it to a target vehicle. An accomplice standing close to the vehicle captures the signal, fooling the car into thinking the key is within range, allowing it to be unlocked. Once the accomplice is inside the car, the process can be repeated to start the engine.

Once inside, a blank fob can be programmed to work with the car by accessing the car’s computer port. It’s a process that takes less than a few minutes and allows the car to be started again at a later date (see key programming, below).

2. Signal jamming
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 hiding place near a driveway being targeted. When car 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.

3. Key programming
Whether thieves use the relay technique, use a jamming device or simply break a window, 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 for more than a decade 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.

4. Close range testing
Some keyless fobs may still be in range of the car when placed on a table or key rack, inside the house. 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. But it’s not worth the risk, and of course any valuables left inside can be removed easily.

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.

5. 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, especially with ever more sophisticated anti-theft coding from car makers.

6 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.

The latest cars allow digital keys to be shared from one smartphone to another, which can be very convenient if you want to allow a relative or friend to borrow your car without being nearby to hand over a physical key, but it’s a new area of security concern.
Message sent by
Chloe Allison (Police, PCSO, Neighbourhood Police Team - Cockerton Darlington )
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