Keyless car theft - how relay attacks work and how to stop car key cloning

Advice on protecting your vehicle from the latest criminal methods

Tuesday, 22nd September 2020, 6:00 pm
Car theft is rising in many parts of the UK
Car theft is rising in many parts of the UK

Car thefts are rising around the country, with high-tech modern cars increasingly targeted by thieves using sophisticated new methods of getting away with valuable vehicles.

Government data showed that vehicle thefts in 2018/19 reached a nine-year high, with more than 114,000 vehicles reported as stolen in England and Wales alone over the 12-month period.

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Figures from comparison site GoCompare suggest that losing a car to theft adds more than £600 to a driver’s insurance costs on top of the stress and inconvenience of losing their car.

Relay attacks allow criminals to start cars without the car key

Much of the rise in thefts has been attributed to criminals targeting new cars with keyless entry systems which are vulnerable to relay attacks or “key cloning”.

Despite this form of theft being an increasingly common method employed by criminals, 42 per cent of UK drivers don’t understand what key cloning is or how it works, according to research by GoCompare.

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What is keyless car theft?

Simple measures such as a Faraday pouch can help protect your car

On the surface, keyless car theft is exactly what it sounds like. Thieves manage to open, start and drive away in a car without needing a physical key.

They do this by “cloning” the signal from a car’s remote key fob in a method known as a relay attack. This uses two receiver/transmitters which intercept then relay the signal from the key. The first unit intercepts the unique signal from the key, even through a house wall, and transmits it to the second unit held close to the car. This sends the cloned signal to the car, fooling the security system into thinking the key is nearby and allowing it to be unlocked and started.

Manufacturers have been criticised for not addressing this vulnerability and while some, such as Ford and Land Rover have modified their technology to thwart relay or cloning attacks, others have yet to act.

To help drivers protect their vehicles against such attacks GoCompare spoke to car thief turned security expert Michael Fraser for advice on how to make your car a hard target for criminals.

How to protect your car from a relay attack

Use the tech in your favour: Consider buying a signal blocking pouch. The thin metallic lining - the same fabric used by the likes of law enforcement - automatically blocks any wireless signals such as keyless car cloning devices, as well as wifi and mobile phone signals. When drivers place their keys in these pouches, criminals will find it tricky to clone their key fobs.

Protect the wheel: Used for generations and one of the few deterrents that still works today; a wheel lock is an immediate red flag for a potential car thief.

Got a garage?: Then use it. Sounds simple right? Well it is. Build a fortress for your car.

A tidy car is a safe car: Don’t draw attention to your car and fill it with half the contents of your house. Taking your phone or sat-nav out is a wise move.

Check it’s locked: Don’t make a burglar's job an easy one. It’s now common for cars’ wing mirrors to be folded in when locked, so it’s easy for savvy thiefs to spot an unlocked target.

Michael added: “Criminals are very tech-savvy, especially their methods of stealing cars with keyless car technology. If you're willing to splash out thousands on a new motor, don’t be stingy when it comes to protecting it. Invest in the most advanced technology such as signal blocking pouches, motion sensor cameras for your car or even a good old-fashioned wheel lock. All of these methods help deter car thieves and leave your car safe.”

Ian Rowlands, director of insurance at GoCompare, said: “This data is a stark reminder of why it is so important for drivers to ensure they have the right insurance policy in place for them, so they can avoid making the already difficult situation of having a car stolen even worse through preventable stresses.

“Keyless car theft is a serious issue, and we are looking at ways we can help motorists innovatively combat keyless car crime.”