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5 Mar 19

Warning: protect cars from keyless entry theft

Major insurers have warned that fleets are facing a rising tide of vehicle thefts due to new keyless entry and start systems.

Keyless systems let drivers open and start their cars without taking the keyless fob out of their pocket. The key fob simply has to be in close proximity to the vehicle, which has left many new cars vulnerable to theft, according to Allianz.

“Thieves are thought to be using technology to bypass entry systems on keyless cars or trick cars into thinking the key is in the criminal’s hand. As the same keyless remotes also start the car, once inside the same technology could be used to start the ignition and drive off with the car,” said the insurer.

32% rise in theft claims in 2018

Vehicle tracking system TRACKER said that 88% of the stolen vehicles it recovered last year were taken without the owner’s keys, and figures from the Association of British Insurers revealed a 32% increase in the cost of theft claims for the first nine months of 2018.

“The rise in part reflects the widely reported growth in keyless vehicle crime,” said the ABI.

The technology uses a relay system to overcome the vehicle's security. Working in pairs, one thief will hold an amplification device up against the front wall, window or door of a house. The device picks up the signal from the keyless fob inside the house and transmits it to another thief (holding a receiver) standing by the vehicle.

The receiver deceives the vehicle into thinking the original key fob is immediately next to the car, and opens its doors. It’s then a simple step to press the ignition button and steal the vehicle, in a process that takes just a few seconds.

Watch thieves steal a car in seconds


The latest test results from ADAC, the German automobile club, found that 230 of 237 cars tested were vulnerable to this type of attack. The exceptions were from Jaguar and Land Rover thanks to the manufacturers’ use of ultrawide band radio signals between the fob and vehicle.

Deactivate keyless entry

ADAC has called on OEMs to ensure that more expensive locking systems are not easier to crack than conventional remote control locking systems, and advised owners of vehicles with keyless entry to, “check your manual (or ask your garage) to find out whether it can be deactivated.”

Mercedes-Benz has made sure that a double click on its keyless fob deactivates the system to guard against theft, and later this year Thatcham, the British insurance industry’s test facility, will update its New Vehicle Security Assessments, “giving car makers the opportunity to bring in fresh measures to address the challenges presented by digital theft techniques. The new criteria will be designed to shut down the Keyless Entry vulnerability.”

In the meantime, Thatcham advises fleets and drivers to check with car dealers to see if keyless fobs can be turned off overnight. It also advises drivers to store keys as far away from the front of a house as possible, and to keep keys in a ‘Faraday’ device (a metal pouch that can block the signal from a keyless fob). The insurer Axa even recommends that drivers keep their keyless fob in the fridge to block the signal.

Secure keyless entry via smartphone

Looking ahead, Bosch has unveiled a different type of keyless entry system, called Perfectly Keyless, based on a virtual key stored in a smartphone. The company says microchips in the phone communicate via Bluetooth with sensors in a car from just a few centimetres away to create a system as secure as a fingerprint yet as convenient as keyless entry. The system blocks signals from other smartphones and from electronic devices that might manipulate the radio transmission of other keyless entry systems, says Bosch, adding that Perfectly Keyless has huge potential for car sharing fleets.

The system looks remarkably similar to the app-based Digital Key unveiled by Hyundai at the Geneva Motor Show this week. The Digital Key uses Near Field Communication (NFC) technology to detect the app-enabled smartphone, unlock the doors and start the engine. Initially the Digital Key can be downloaded to four different smartphones – it even remembers the seat and mirror settings of each driver – and once car sharing becomes more widespread the Digital Key will be programmed to support vehicle rental in a way that the fleet owner and driver will not have to meet to hand over a key.

How to combat keyless car theft
1. Check with dealers whether the keyless fob can be switched off, and then encourage drivers to deactivate the system overnight.
2. Store keys away from the front door / windows of a house, ideally as far into the home as possible, to make it difficult for any relay system to pick up the signal from the keyless fob.
3. Keep keys in a Faraday pouch, a type of metal shield that blocks their keyless signal. Check to see if the protection works by standing next to the car with the key protected by the pouch – if the car fails to open, the shield is working.


Authored by: Jonathan Manning