Have keyless cars become the target of thieves?

Should we be concerned about new high-tech methods of stealing cars?

It’s the high-tech scenario that has a lot of motorists very worried. An unsuspecting car owner emerges from his keyless vehicle, unaware of the close proximity of a dark-clad figure wearing a black backpack. The doors automatically lock and he walks off down the street. But the driver has no idea that the signal from his key fob has been remotely intercepted via a sophisticated computer device hidden in the stranger’s bag. It’s all the tech-savvy thief needs to quickly determine the car’s secret access code and drive the vehicle away.

While overseas media outlets such as The New York Times and the UK’s The Telegraph have reported at length on cases involving thieves hacking into keyless cars, the question is: are Australian car owners at risk?

“South Australia has not seen an increase in this type of theft,” says a spokesperson for South Australia Police. “Whether the vehicle is managed by a key system or a transponder, vehicle owners should always ensure their car keys are out of view and away from external doors and windows.”

How sophisticated are thieves?

Robert McDonald, Manager of SGIC Research Centre, also believes the hacking of keyless cars is a non-issue. “This movie and internet view of thieves being super-sophisticated, carrying attaché cases with electronic gear inside just doesn’t happen,” he says. “The way the majority of people steal cars these days is overwhelmingly through obtaining a key.”

McDonald believes the possibility of a keyless car being hacked by thieves is extremely miniscule. “That’s because the key has a very low range, about a metre, so someone has to get very close to you and for long enough to scan the signal and do some sort of computer work to duplicate the signal,” he says. “They’d also need some fairly sophisticated electronics to do that. It’s just not the way car thieves work.”

Paradoxically, high-technology vehicles are most likely to be stolen using a decidedly low-tech approach – by gaining access to an actual key. And while rates of car theft have indeed fallen across the country, the number being stolen due to lack of key security is rising. According to statistics from the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council, 70 per cent of late-model vehicles are stolen using the keys, with half of all cars stolen taken from the home. Indeed, with incidences of car keys being stolen from homes increasing nationally, authorities say that simple precautions remain the best defence against car theft.

Police tips

“There are some important steps drivers can take,” says the South Australia Police spokesperson. “If the car is at home but you are out, make sure you have all the keys with you. And when you are out, don’t leave keys unattended in bags, lockers, or the like.”

Police also recommend tagging your keys with a driver licence number – not your name or address.

“And finally, never leave a spare set of house or car keys in your car,” adds the spokesperson. “Most importantly, if you notice any suspicious activity, report it immediately to Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000, or police on 131 444.”

While some internet sources even suggest keeping your key fobs in a freezer or microwave oven to render them unhackable, McDonald says that the simplest ways of preventing car theft are still the most effective.

“People have to be aware that their key is the key to the whole issue,” he says. “They need to make sure they keep their keys in a secure place, that they don’t leave them in an obvious place, so that during a burglary, for example, thieves can’t easily find them.”

McDonald adds that it’s not uncommon for burglary victims to not immediately notice that their keys are missing, giving the thief an opportunity to return a few days later to steal the car, or on-sell the key and address to another thief.

“Another common mistake people make is leaving the keys in the car while they pay for petrol, which is a big no-no.”

Car theft prevention tips

A secure home means a secure car. Here are some easy steps for preventing the theft of your car keys from right under your nose.

  • Establish a clear line of sight to your street by keeping trees and shrubs well-trimmed
  • Make sure your house and garage is fitted with solid external doors and frames equipped with quality deadlocks
  • Lock doors and windows when working outside or in an isolated part of the house
  • Consider fitting motion-activated external security lighting to your house and garage

To learn more about how you can keep your car safe from theft, visit www.carsafe.com.au