How to prevent keyless car theft: Security advice as police chiefs warn of growing threat from relay attacks

The simple measures to protect your car from high-tech theft

Police chiefs say most of the rise in car thefts is down to relay attacks
Police chiefs say most of the rise in car thefts is down to relay attacks

The UK’s top police officer investigating vehicle crime has warned drivers to protect themselves and their vehicles from the threat of keyless theft.

Data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) shows that there was a three per cent increase in vehicle crime between May and June 2021 and association says the bulk of this increase was down to keyless theft.

Assistant Chief Constable Jenny Sims, the NPCC’s lead for vehicle crime, said that organised crime gangs were increasingly using relay attacks to steal modern vehicles and urged drivers to take simple steps to thwart the crooks.

Keyless entry systems are convenient but can be vulnerable to criminal attack

She said: “Car theft is a serious crime that causes significant distress and upset to owners.

“Whilst the rapid development of technology has dramatically improved the experience of drivers it has also allowed criminals to exploit weaknesses in electronic security. We are working closely with car manufacturers to help them design out crime by sharing intelligence and equipment seized from criminals. We are already making substantial progress in this regard.

“I would urge drivers to take simple steps to keep their vehicle safe like storing your keys in metal tins or protective pouches that block the devices criminals are using. A return to basics like making sure your car is locked is worthwhile too. We know from research that some owners think that cars automatically lock – they don’t. Always double check before you walk away that it’s locked.”

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A Faraday pouch is a cheap way to stop relay attacks

In recent weeks, police have secured convictions against criminal gangs behind more than £5 million worth of car crime, including using relay attacks. In Leicestershire, seven members of an organised crime gang involved in more than 50 keyless thefts of vehicles worth £2.4m were jailed for a total of more than 30 years. And in Liverpool, five people were sentenced to a total of more than 23 years in prison after being convicted for a range of offences including the theft of keyless cars totalling around £2.6m.

How keyless entry car theft works

Relay attacks work by fooling a car’s security system into believing the key fob is present. Thieves use a receiver/transmitter to intercept the unique signal from the key fob, even through house walls. This is then relayed to another receiver/transmitter held near the car, which allows it to be unlocked and started.

How to prevent relay attacks

The technology behind keyless entry and start may be complex but there are simple steps to stop the systems’ vulnerability from being exploited.

Store your key fob away from household entry points. The further they are from the house exterior, the harder it is for crooks to pick up the signal.

Invest in a Faraday pouch. These are cheap fabric pouches lined with a metal mesh that blocks the fob’s signal. An alternative is to pop the keys in a lidded metal tin, such as a biscuit tin, which has the same effect.

Speak to your dealer. Some cars’ systems can be deactivated and some models will have received software updates that can improve security, so make sure your vehicle is up to date. Some manufacturers, such as Ford, have also developed new fobs that automatically power down to stop relay attacks. Ask if this is available for your car.

If you have a garage, use it. A car locked up out of sight is a far less tempting target for thieves.

Buy a steering lock. These old-fashioned security measures have made a comeback in recent years as a simple physical obstacle that makes the car impossible to drive even if criminals can get the engine started.

You should also always check your car is locked before you leave it. Stealing a car via relay or any other attack is much easier if the car isn’t locked in the first place.