You have just acquired a brand new top of the range Mercedes with all the extras, it is a great and attractive vehicle. Like many new cars, it comes with keyless entry as standard. But is this convenient technology also a major security risk?
No more time spent rummaging around in your pockets for the keys, possibly scratching the paintwork around the lock as you hurry to get in the car, finally putting the key in the ignition and turning it. With keyless entry technology, you just need the key fob in your pocket or bag, simply approach the car, get in, press the start button and drive away.
However, this handy technology leaves your brand new vehicle more vulnerable to theft and security issues with a technology that could be hacked. Meaning any valuables left in the car or even the car itself could be taken in a matter of seconds by thieves exploiting weaknesses in the keyless technology.
Of the top ten car models sold in the UK last year, eight have keyless entry systems. Keyless systems using a handheld transmitter first began appearing on the French made Renault Fuego in 1982. As technology has progressed, keyless systems have gone from simply locking and unlocking the doors from a distance, to automatically locking and unlocking them and, if the fob is in the car, allowing the engine to be started with the push of a button, making the key a thing of the past.
The weakness of the keyless system is where the signal can be boosted to increase the range, and this is what criminals are taking advantage of.
The process criminals use to steal a car via keyless theft – also known as relay theft – is relatively simple. Criminals use a device that picks up the signal from the key fob and another device next to the car that fools the car into thinking the key fob is right next to it. By intercepting the signal, a thief can open the car door, disable any alarms and turn the engine on all in a matter of minutes – or even seconds. They don’t have to break into the house, they just have to stand outside because the signal can be picked up through the wall. The transmitter relay devices used by criminals can be easily bought on the internet for only a few hundred pounds.
Police forces across the UK have seen rises in car thefts, and keyless is thought to be the single biggest reason. Up until recently, car crime had been in decline thanks in part to improved security systems. But according to data from the Office for National Statistics, more than 89,000 cars were stolen in England and Wales in 2017. That is up 56% from 57,000 the previous year. Police figures for the West Midlands show the number of cars stolen has nearly doubled in two years – from 5,344 cars in 2015 to 9,451 cars in 2017.
Car models vulnerable to keyless theft
The ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club) have been carrying out tests to see which models they could unlock by ‘tricking’ keyless technology into thinking the owner was nearby with a fob. Vehicles from 31 manufacturers were unlocked. These are the models of cars that were unlocked during testing:
Alfa Romeo Giulia, Stelvio
Audi A3, A4, A4 Avant, A5, A6, A6 All Road, Q2, Q7, R8, S5 Sportback, SQ7, TTRS, TTS
BMW 225xe, 230i, M240i Coupe, 318i, 318d, 320i, 440i Grand Coupe, 520d, 520i, 530d Touring, 630 GT, 640d, 730d, 740, 740d, i3, i3 94 Ah, I3, X1, X1 SDrive 18d, X2, X3
Citroen DS4 CrossBack, C3 Pure Tech, C4 Picasso, C4 Picasso HDI, Spacetourer, DS7
Fiat 124 Spider, 500x
Ford Eco-Sport, Edge, Fiesta, Focus RS, Galaxy, Kuga Vignale, Mustang, S-Max
Hyundai i10, i30, i30 1.4 T-GDI, i40, Ioniq, iX35 Fuel Cell, Kona 1.0 T-GFI, Santa Fe
Kia Niro Hybrid, Optima, Optima Plugin-Hybrid, Rio 1.0F GDI, Sorento, Sportage CRDI, Stinger, Stonic 1.0
Land Rover Discovery, Range Rover, Range Rover Evoque
Lexus CT 200, RX 450h
Mazda 3 Skyactive, CX-5, MX5
Mercedes E 220d, E 220d T-Model, E 400 Coupe, S400d
Mini Clubman, Cooper S, Countryman
Mitubishi Outlander, Space Star
Nissan Leaf, Navara, Qashqia, Qashqia+2
Opel Ampera, Astra, Crossland, Grandland, Insignia
Peugeot 308 SW, 508 W, 3008, 5008
Renault Captur, Clio, Grand Scenic, Kadjar, Koleos, Megane, Megane Grand tour, Scenic, Talisman, Talisman Grandtour, Traffic,
Seat Arona, Ateca, Ibiza, Leon
Skoda Karoz, Kodiaq, Octavia, Superb 1,6TDi
Ssangtyong Rexton, Tivoli XDi
Suzuki SX4 S-Cross, Baleno, Swift, Vitara
Subaru Forester, Imperza, Levorg
Tesla Model S P85, Model X
Toyota C-HR 1.8 Hybrid, C-HR, Mirai, Prius, Prius 1.8 Hybrid, RAV4, Verso
Volvo V40, S90, S90 D5, V90 D5, XC40, XC60, XC90 T8
Volskwagen Arteon, Egolf, Golf 7, Passat , Tiguan, Touran 5T
How to protect against relay theft?
Figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed that in 2017, 80% of vehicle theft happened in the evening or overnight, so owners might not even realise their car is missing until the next morning. Research from Tracker shows where most motorists leave their keys overnight.
Where motorists leave their car keys overnight:
1. In the hallway – either on a table or in a bag or coat pocket – 25%
2. A dedicated key pot or key hook elsewhere in the house – 25%
3. In a draw downstairs – 16%
4. In my bedroom – 12%
5. A combination of 1-4 above – 10%
6. Somewhere in the house – I usually have to hunt for them in the morning – 8%
7. A metal container to ensure it is protected from a relay attack – 4%
A few simple measures that can be taken to help minimise the risk of relay theft;
1. Make sure your vehicle has had every software update done. This will ensure your vehicle is up to date with all the latest security updates, making it less vulnerable to potential thieves.
2. Check if the keyless entry fob can be turned off and turn it off overnight. If the fob is off no signal will be transmitted for criminals to use.
3. Store your keys as far as possible away from the outside of the house. It doesn’t matter if the key is simply out of sight because thieves could still get close enough to pick up the signal regardless.
4. Buy a Faraday pouch. These signal-blocking pouches contain signal blocking materials that stop your key transmitting its signal, preventing thieves from being able to detect and amplify the signal.
5. Add extra security to your car to help prevent theft. Traditional security devices like steering locks and wheel clamps will deter most would-be thieves as they would see these obstacles as too much hassle, and even if they are able to access and start the car, these measures will prevent them from driving off with it. More modern options such as aftermarket trackers and immobilisers will help: even if thieves do manage to gain access and drive off, these devices will assist the police in tracking and immobilising the vehicle.
The threat of key jammers
Keyless technology can also make vehicles targets for thieves using electronic devices called key jammers. The jammer interrupts the signal from the key fob preventing the car from locking, meaning unwary motorists believe their cars are locked and secure when they actually they are unlocked and vulnerable.
The thief waits for the driver to pull up and park the car. Using the jamming device, the thief sends out a signal blocking the key from locking the car. The unsuspecting driver walks away, not realising their remote hasn’t locked the car. Once inside the vehicle, the thief can simply steal any possessions or plug another device into the onboard diagnostic (OBD) port to download the vehicle’s electronic information on to a blank key. This key then becomes compatible with the car, allowing the criminal to drive the vehicle away.
The only sure way to know your car is locked is to check manually. Most cars have another indication that the vehicle has been locked, such as the indicator lights flashing or wing mirrors folding in. The Metropolitan Police’s Organised Vehicle Crime Unit recommends using a steering wheel lock or gearstick lock and to consider having an OBD lock and a tracker fitted.