Criminals are now using sophisticated technology to steal cars to carry out serious crimes before setting them alight to hide the evidence. Cars are increasingly being stolen by thieves who bounce the signal from car keyless fobs even when they are locked inside the owner’s home.

Ford, Volkswagen, Land Rover, and Audi are amongst the brands targeted. Evidence of stolen cars being recovered in containers destined for ports and through garage premises where they can be broken up and sold on for parts and pieces. Some organised crime groups use stolen vehicles to carry out serious crimes of violence and will steal vehicles months in advance to do so. They are then used and then disposed of after the event, often by being set on fire to destroy the evidence.

Hi-tech devices disguised as handheld games consoles are being used by organised crime gangs to mimic the electronic key to unlock the car. The device, known as an “emulator”, works by intercepting a signal from the car, is scanning for the presence of a legitimate key, and sending back a signal to gain access to the vehicle. An increase in the number of thefts is part of the reason for rising insurance premiums with car thefts at their highest level for a decade in the UK indicative of the trend in Australia.

Part of the reason, say experts, is the rise of keyless entry. Push-button keyless entry fobs for cars were first introduced in the 1980s and by the late 1990s car manufacturers were introducing keyless ignition systems, but this was generally restricted to luxury cars. Subsequently, modern “smart key” fobs, which unlock the car when the owner approaches without the need to press a button, have become more common, offering new security loopholes for crime gangs. The motor industry was warned more than a decade ago of problems in the software it was deploying in cars with a report from the University of California and the University of Washington warning of the security vulnerabilities of modern cars, implementing an “attack” to “unlock the doors and start the engine”. In the UK, insurance company Aviva said owners of modern keyless vehicles were twice as likely to make a theft claim.

Another common attack is to hack into the vehicle’s onboard diagnostic port (OBD) which allows access to the vehicle computer systems via a connector for various tasks. It can be used by thieves to programme a new key linked to the vehicle, but they need to find a way to gain entry to the car first. The car industry has implemented various software security upgrades in recent years but faces criticism for responding too slowly to warnings.

Use image of a vehicle if possible

What can you do to minimise the risk of your car being stolen?

The equipment used in keyless car thefts is legal and easily purchased online. The theft is carried out by at least two people, one standing close to the door of the home containing the key to the car, the other standing next to the car. Both thieves hold relay boxes to amplify the signal from the keyless fob in the house and can open and start the car without breaking in.

Steve Launchbury, principal engineer at Thatcham Research, a risk intelligence organisation funded by the UK’s insurance industry said motorists need to inform themselves about their vehicle’s security systems and features and, where under manufacturer’s warranty, to consult that

manufacturer before installing any electronic theft prevention measures. He said trackers and mechanical steering locks can be effective.

Another way of preventing thefts is if owners store their keys in secure Faraday bags which prevent wireless signals from reaching a device. Sensible precautions like this mean that the thieves move to another target car. Carpeesh Claims manager Craig commented “Besides preventing a crime, you will also minimise the inconvenience of not having your own car. Carpeesh provides 14days hire car to all customers in the event of a car being stolen but it can take much longer than a few weeks to recover a car, and even then, it might be found stolen and requiring repair.

A metal box inside a microwave is not most people’s idea of a sensible key cupboard, but the Faraday pouch – a bag with a metal lining to block signals – can hold the keyless fob, and putting it in the microwave as far away from the front yard as possible will minimise the risk of scanning and grabbing.

Most cars that offer keyless entry are in the luxury market, which makes it attractive for thieves to get on top of the technology, but they are also becoming more common in mid-range cars. One solution would be for manufacturers to give drivers the option to disable hi-tech fobs and return to simpler security that is harder to hack. But in the meantime, use an old-fashioned steering lock and being smart about where you keep your keyless fob is a must.