Car theft is getting out of control – here’s what you can do about it

Most of the 100,000 cars stolen each year in the UK are now thought to come from what is known as keyless car theft

Most of the 100,000 cars stolen each year in the UK are now thought to come from what is known as keyless car theft

At three in the morning, while checking on the baby, Matthew realized his Range Rover Sport had been stolen.

“We saw an email and several missed calls from a Land Rover tracking company,” Matthew said. “It had happened before by mistake, including when we actually drove it, so we didn’t have much faith, but a look out the window showed it was gone. It was taken in the middle of the night, around half past midnight, with no noise or fuss.”

Matthew’s story is relatively common. It is now believed that most of the 100,000 cars stolen every year in the UK come from what is known as 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 its rightful owner is trying to use it.

Types of attack

There are several variations on this theme, ranging from opportunistic signal blocking attacks – where the thief blocks the key fob signal by ordering the car to be locked, left unlocked and the glove box looted – to sophisticated counterfeiting of keys using expensive specialist tools.

But an increasingly common and effective trick is the relay attack.

Working in pairs, the criminals will roam the driveway at night. One will come as close to the house as possible, holding a box with an antenna. This device listens for a faint, distant signal emitted by a car key indoors, in a jacket pocket, or in a bowl in a hallway. He then repeats this signal at full power to the second thief, who holds the associated device next to the car, which he now believes is simply being unlocked. Within minutes, sometimes seconds, thieves have new wheels.

This is 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 and said my car was missing,” Ollie said. “She noticed our Land Rover was not parked outside her bedroom window as usual and came over to see if I was home.”

neighborhood watch

In many cases, especially those involving such exclusive cars, this would be the end of the matter. With limited resources, police forces are often unable or unwilling to track down every stolen car, and increasingly sophisticated organized gangs are quick to sell, disassemble or ship them to another country. But fortunately for Ollie, that’s not always the case.

“The tracking service that came with the car had expired and I didn’t renew it,” he said. “But the police informed me that thieves sometimes leave the car nearby for a while before moving on, so I posted a message on Nextdoor in case any of the neighbors saw it.”

Ollie was able to locate his car via Nextdoor's Getty Images social media app

Ollie was able to locate his car via Nextdoor’s Getty Images social media app

Neighborhood based social app provided. An astute member of Nextdoor spotted unknown Discovery’s tucked away near garages miles away, allowing Ollie to head out (in a taxi) to retrieve it.

Most cars may disappear, but around 28 percent of vehicles stolen in 2021 have been recovered – less than a third or more than a quarter, depending on attitude. This suggests that victims of this type of crime may have a narrow window where they can inquire locally in case someone spots their tattered car hidden around the corner.

But the idea that we may or may not get our car back is no comfort to owners of modern, expensive vehicles – often Land Rovers – that are disappearing from driveways at such an alarming rate. Since there are no signs of abating this particular crime wave, is there anything owners can do to protect their cars from criminals?

Physical obstacles

According to Jack Cousens, AA’s head of traffic policy, there are solutions to this problem – and surprisingly retro. “I haven’t heard of a case where a thief went to great lengths to steal a car,” he says. “If a would-be villain looks at a script and thinks it might be more trouble than it’s worth, they won’t care.”

Physical obstacles make the pure digital crime of key cloning and data-passing attacks something more time-consuming, risky and dirty, says Cousens. Even a two-minute tightening of a wheel caliper adds effort compared to a 30-second job. “The big yellow steering wheel lock is a great option. If you have bollards you can place behind your car, or gates across your driveway, that’s a positive thing too. [Thieves] they won’t care.”

Stoplock Steering Wheel Lock - Getty Images

Stoplock Steering Wheel Lock – Getty Images

But with so many cars disappearing from driveways, often as a result of a signal amplification attack, is there anything drivers can do to prevent key signals from being used to open and start cars in the middle of the night?

Key protection

One of the best things you can get is a Faraday handbag, says Cousens. These pouches, which usually have metal woven into fabric, are available for less than a dollar and are a cheap, effective way to isolate your car keys from the outside world. “But you have to buy two, one for the key you use every day and the other for the spare you forgot. Both must be protected to prevent these attacks.”

The technology and expertise required to carry out this type of theft is now within the reach of a small mid-level crook. While such exploits used to be an almost theoretical vulnerability achievable only with expensive radio equipment in the hands of specialists, today you can buy the essentials online for hundreds of pounds and start the crime with a trusted friend and a bit of trial and error.

Car Keys — Getty Images

Car Keys — Getty Images

Even petty criminals who lack the broader network or business sense required to sell a car on the black market use these methods to steal the contents of a vehicle using a “smash and grab” method – without breaking the glass on their shoes.
Laura, from Clapham in south-west London, found out the hard way. “We had [Range Rover] Velara, she says.

“This was the first time we had a new car that was stolen within a year of our purchase. They picked him up at 6:00, rush hour.

“Our keys weren’t in Faraday’s pouch or anything – that was before I found out about this craze. So we went to a dealer who offered us a big discount on another Velar.”

Missing property

To prevent her new car from going missing, Laura invested in an immobilizer and steering lock, as well as a Faraday pouch; she says the insurance money took three months, and the administration involved in arranging the temporary transportation – not to mention the bus lane penalty the criminals paid on her behalf during the escape – took a greater emotional toll than the theft itself. But it still wasn’t enough.

“My partner told me he couldn’t find his golf clubs after he left them in the trunk,” she says. “I explained to him that he was a moron and apparently he left them somewhere. But then I noticed that some of the Christmas presents I had left in the car were also missing.”

As Laura discovered, the same technology that is used to start cars can also be used to open them – and December proved to be a great opportunity for thieves to learn about other families’ gift-buying habits. Valuables left in a suitably fortified SUV – parked outside a gate, with a steering lock and an expensive locator – are now as vulnerable to passing criminals as car radios were in the 1980s.

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

But for now, with manufacturers slowly tackling the problem, and with penniless police unlikely to be able to pursue every missing Merc, the responsibility of preventing vehicle theft falls to car owners – a crime that has been around as long as the car itself.

Simple steps to prevent vehicle theft

Steering wheel lock

A committed thief will break through the lock or, more likely, the steering wheel itself to steal the car, meaning if it is recovered, costly damage is more likely. But the sight of a steering wheel lock is reason enough to send a less motivated crook on his way (and steal a neighborhood Land Rover instead).

faraday bag

The Faraday case is the first line of defense against relay attacks, cocoons your keys and stops criminals from amplifying your signal. Any metal container will do – a cookie tin, a file cabinet, even a microwave oven – although specially made products are inexpensive and effective.

Retractable post

Protecting your driveway is almost as good as protecting your car. Retractable bollards that can be lifted and locked when parked ensure that even a successfully connected car cannot be driven away without a fight. As with other physical security, a committed freelance gang will quickly deal with most posts, but many will lose interest and try elsewhere.

Park in your garage

Garage owners should use them, the AA advises. This is not always possible – garages are usually either too small to accommodate the modern SUVs that are now the target of thieves, or too full of bicycles, kayaks and seasonal trash to be used for their original purpose. But if you have one, it’s hard for criminals to even know you have a nice car, let alone steal it.

Turn off keyless entry

It is sometimes possible to disable the “keyless” feature in a modern car key. How to do this will depend on the manufacturer and model; Your dealer (or, more likely, a long YouTube video shot by a bored but civic driver) may be able to help.

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