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Protect your car from digital thieves

4 min read
29 Dec 2015

Car manufacturers are constantly working on new features to make our driving experience more enjoyable and hassle free. New developments are increasingly technological and, unfortunately, car thieves are hot on their heels in trying to find ways to exploit these technologies. This article looks at one such development and what can be done to protect your car from digital thieves.

Keyless entry systems are particularly common in modern vehicles, so we’ve decided to take a look at how modern thieves are taking advantage of their technological weakness. While this is still uncommon in Australia, several news outlets have reported on this potential risk.

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Mark Borlace of motoring organisation RAA in South Australia has stated that most car thieves still use less tech-savvy means in their ‘trade’ (e.g. forced entry, theft of traditional keys) and cars 12 to 15 years old are most commonly stolen. Additionally, Ray Carroll of the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council said that 60% of car thefts are of cars without an immobiliser.

However, it is wise to be aware of what risks there might be with new features and whether you should consider changing current precautions to guard against theft; particularly at this time of year when our cars might be loaded with valuable Christmas gift.

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What is a keyless system?

We are likely to be familiar with ‘keyless’ systems, which work by pressing a button on the key fob to unlock or lock the car doors remotely when within a certain range of the vehicle. The key transmits a radio signal to the car. Some newer models (sometimes called ‘Smart Key’ or ‘Hands Free’) have dispensed with buttons and work on a proximity system.

Once the driver is close enough to the car it recognises a low powered signal from the key fob in their pocket or bag, telling it to unlock the doors and enable the ignition. Usually the system requires the driver to touch a sensor on the door handle before it is physically unlocked. Some models with ‘push button’ ignition also need to register that the key fob is within the car itself before starting the engine.

Over 30 manufacturers have a proximity based keyless entry system of their own, marketed under various names. In practice, it’s reported they are more likely to be provided on higher end makes and models, particularly European cars such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

What are the security risks?

There have been reports that car thieves are using fairly inexpensive ‘signal boosters’ to beat the need for the fob to be very close to the car. This basically amplifies or relays the signal emitted by the keyless fob, allowing it to ‘talk’ to the car over a much greater distance and trick the car into believing the fob is within the usual range, allowing thieves to open the doors.

In the same report, there were also concerns that thieves in Europe and Russia were bypassing the fob and car link altogether and hacking into the car’s systems directly using their own devices. The New York Times also describes thieves using laptops equipped with a radio transmitter that works out the unique code of a car’s key fob by using “brute force” to cycle through millions of combinations until they find the right one.

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What can I do to protect my car?

At the most basic level, make sure your fob is stored well out of range of your parked car when at home.

Another tip, which might seem bizarre, is to store your keys in the fridge or freezer. It’s stated that the steel or aluminium walls (rather than the cold) block the radio signals. Other news sites suggest wrapping the fob in foil to achieve the same effect or buying a ‘Faraday Bag’ that blocks radio signals.

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If possible, you might consider turning the fob off when it isn’t in use, or simply removing the batteries.

This problem hasn’t reached Australia, yet.

It’s worth highlighting that Mark Borlace of RAA stated the problems emerging overseas did not seem to have reached Australia at this stage. He also points out that the car manufacturers themselves are always working to stay one step ahead of the thieves by, for example, using ‘rolling codes’.

This means the fob and the car use a different code number to recognise each other every time the door is opened. In addition the radio frequency used to communicate can also be changed each time. This constantly changing code and variation in radio frequency makes hacking more difficult.

Being aware of potential risks, and what you can do to minimise them, can only be beneficial. If you are considering a car with proximity based keyless entry, you might also want to question the dealer or manufacturer on security issues.

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