Vehicle Theft – Here’s what you can do about it

Savvy crooks may know how to steal a keyless SUV in seconds – but owners have some tricks up their sleeve too – Extract from Ed Wiseman’s column in The Daily Telegraph

It was at three o’clock in the morning, while he was checking on his baby, that Matthew realised his Range Rover Sport had been stolen.

“We saw an email and some missed calls from Land Rover’s tracking company,” said Matthew. “This had happened in error before, including when we were actually driving it, so we didn’t have much faith, but a glance out of the window showed that it had gone. It had been taken in the middle of the night, at about half past midnight, with no noise or fuss.”

Matthew’s story is a relatively common one. Most of the 100,000 cars stolen annually in the UK are now thought to be taken by means of so-called keyless car theft. Criminals using hacking devices can remotely exploit vulnerabilities in modern cars – many of which have convenient “keyless” entry and ignition systems – and trick the car into thinking that its rightful owner is trying to use it. 

Types of attack

There are several variations on this theme, ranging from opportunist signal blocking attacks – whereby a thief jams the signal from your key fob telling the car to lock, keeping it open and allowing its glove box to be plundered – to sophisticated key spoofing using expensive specialist tools. 

But an increasingly common and successful ploy is what is called a relay attack.

Working in pairs, criminals will wander onto a driveway at night. One will get as close to the house as possible, holding a box with an aerial. This device is listening for the faint, distant signal emitted by a car key indoors, in the pocket of a jacket or in a bowl in the hallway. It then repeats this signal at full blast to the second thief, who is holding a related device next to the car, which now believes it is simply being unlocked. Within minutes, sometimes seconds, the thieves have some new wheels.

That is exactly what happened to Ollie, whose Land Rover Discovery was stolen from Greenwich in December. 

“First thing in the morning, my 8-year-old daughter woke me up to tell me my car was gone,” said Ollie. “She had noticed our Land Rover wasn’t parked outside her bedroom window like normal and came to check that I was home.”

According to Jack Cousens, head of road policy at the AA, there are solutions to this problem – and they are surprisingly retro. “I haven’t heard of a case where a thief has gone through a lot of effort to steal a car,” he says. “If a would-be miscreant looks at the scenario and thinks it might be more trouble than it’s worth, they won’t bother.”

Physical obstacles turn the clean, digital crime of key cloning and relay attacks into something altogether more time-consuming, risky and dirty, says Cousens. Even two minutes bolt-cutting a wheel clamp adds effort to what might otherwise be a 30-second job. “A big, yellow steering wheel lock is a great option. If you’ve got bollards you can put behind your car, or gates across your driveway, that’s a positive thing too. [Thieves] aren’t going to bother with that.”

But with so many cars going missing from driveways, often by means of a signal boosting attack, is there anything that motorists can do to prevent the signal from their keys being used to open and start cars in the middle of the night? 

Protecting your keys

One of the best things you can get is a Faraday pouch, says Cousens. These pouches, which usually have metal woven into the fabric, are available for under a tenner and are a cheap, effective way to insulate your car keys from the outside world. “But you need to buy two, one for the key you use every day, and one for the spare that you’ve forgotten about. Both need to be protected to prevent these attacks.”

The technology and expertise required to carry out this kind of theft is now within the grasp of a middleweight small-town crook. While such exploits were once an almost theoretical vulnerability, achievable only using expensive radio equipment in the hands of specialists, today you can buy the requisite devices online for hundreds of pounds and begin a crime spree with a trusted friend and a bit of trial and error.

Even petty criminals, lacking the wider network or business sense required to sell a car on the black market, are using these methods to carry out “smash and grab” thefts of vehicle contents – without getting broken glass on their trainers. 
Laura, from Clapham in south-west London, found this out the hard way. “We had a [Range Rover] Velar,” she says.

“It was the first time we’d ever had a new car and it was stolen within a year of us having it. They took it at 6pm, during rush hour.

“Our keys weren’t in a Faraday pouch or anything – this was before I knew about that craziness. So we went to the dealer and they offered us a big discount on another Velar.”

Missing property

To prevent the new car from going missing, Laura invested in an immobiliser and a steering wheel lock, as well as a Faraday pouch; the insurance money had taken three months to come through, she says, and the administrative faff of arranging interim transport – not to mention a bus lane fine that the criminals had incurred on her behalf during their getaway – had taken a bigger emotional toll than the theft itself. But it still wasn’t enough. 

“My partner told me he couldn’t find his golf clubs after leaving them in the boot,” she says. “I explained to him that he was a moron and that he’d obviously left them somewhere. But then I noticed that some Christmas gifts I’d left in the car had gone missing as well.”

As Laura discovered, the same technology used to start cars can be used to merely open them as well – and December proved a rich opportunity for thieves to learn about other families’ present-buying habits. Valuables left in a properly fortified SUV – parked behind gates, with a steering wheel lock and an expensive tracker – are currently just as vulnerable to passing criminals as car radios were in the 1980s.

Despite this recent spate of thefts, car security has come a long way since you could open a Ford with a clothes hanger and start it with a length of wire. And in 40 years’ time, we might look back with similar nostalgia for this particular era of car crime – who knows how thieves might target driverless pods or flying taxis in the future?

But for now, with manufacturers only slowly addressing the problem and penniless police forces unlikely to chase down every missing Merc, the responsibility falls to car owners to protect themselves against vehicle theft – a crime that has been around as long as the motor car itself.


Simple steps to stop your vehicle being stolen

Steering wheel lock

A committed thief will angle-grind through the lock, or more likely the steering wheel itself, to steal the car, which means it’s more likely to have expensive damage if it gets recovered. But the sight of a steering wheel lock presents enough of a faff to send the less motivated crook on his way (to steal next door’s Land Rover instead).

Faraday pouch

The Faraday pouch is a first line of defence against relay attacks, cocooning your keys and stopping criminals from boosting its signal. Any metal container will do – a biscuit tin, a filing cabinet, even a microwave – though purpose-made products are inexpensive and effective.

Retractable bollard

Protecting your driveway is almost as good as protecting your car. Retractable bollards, which you can lift and lock once you’ve parked, ensure that even a successfully hotwired car can’t be driven away without a fight. As with any other physical security, a committed gang working to order will make short work of most bollards, but many will lose interest and try somewhere else.

Park in your garage

Garage owners should utilise them, advises the AA. This isn’t always possible – garages tend to be too small to accommodate the modern SUVs currently being targeted by thieves, or too full of bicycles, kayaks and seasonal clobber to be used for their original purpose. But if you have one, it makes it difficult for criminals to even know you have a nice car, let alone be able to nick it.

Disable keyless entry

It’s sometimes possible to disable the “keyless” element of a modern car’s key. How to do this will depend on the manufacturer and the model; your dealer (or more likely a long-winded YouTube video produced by a bored but civic-minded motorist) might be able to help.

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One Reply to “Vehicle Theft – Here’s what you can do about it”

  1. A metal container may not block the key signal. My keys were in a steel safe but the signal leaked out enough to steal my car by key relay.
    Aluminium foil works well as does a Faraday pouch. The pouch may wear in use then fail to block the key signal.
    Check by holding the shielded key next to your car and confirm it fails to open the car.
    If not needed, you can remove the battery from the spare key.
    Some newer keys go to sleep if not moved for several minutes.

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