How to stop keyless car theft? Police chief’s tips to prevent stolen cars - relay attacks explained

As thefts using relay attacks increase these simple measures can help protect your car from criminals

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

New data suggests that cars with keyless entry systems are twice as likely to be stolen as those without.

Figures from insurer Aviva reveal that between 2020 and 2022 its customers with keyless-equipped vehicles were twice as likely to make a claim for vehicle theft than other customers. Separate figures from the ONS also show that keyless entry was the most common method of access for vehicle thefts in England and Wales in 2020, accounting for 36% of all incidents.

Police have blamed a rise in car thefts on the growing use of relay attacks which target vehicles with keyless entry and start systems and warned that organised crime gangs are using the technique to steal millions of pounds’ worth of cars every year. They have urged drivers to take precautions to make sure their vehicles aren’t an easy target for crooks.

Assistant Chief Constable Jenny Sims, lead for vehicle crime at the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), said: “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.”

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

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

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 or pedal box. 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.
  • Park in a well-lit area. According to the Met Police, vehicles parked in dark and less busy areas are more likely to be broken into and damaged. It is therefore recommended to park in well-lit and busier areas if you don’t have a private garage or driveway - and when away from home.
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