To steal a car a generation ago meant a bit of muscle and a tool or two. In fact, in 1992 alone, UK vehicle crime spiked and thieves stole 620,000 vehicles from our roads. Over time, car security has increased but the fight against car thieves is far from done.

Home Office figures show car theft has doubled since 2014 and motor theft insurance payouts were at their highest in seven years at the start of 2019, according to the Association of British Insurers (ABI).

Covering the cost

The ABI says insurers settled around £108 million—or £1.2 million a day—in claims in the first three months of the year; an increase of 22% on the same period last year. This works out as a payout every eight minutes. Insurers paid out on a huge 16,000 claims from January to March 2019, compared to 14,000 in 2018.

The cost of vehicle repairs, meanwhile, was £1.2 billion—the highest quarterly figure since the ABI started to collect this data in 2013—which the ABI puts down to higher costs for parts and technology.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported a nine per cent increase in motor vehicle theft offences in 2018 compared to 2017, with police recording 113,037 ‘theft or unauthorised taking of a motor vehicle’ crimes. That’s one vehicle reported stolen every five minutes. The total number of vehicle-related crimes also increased during 2018 by two per cent with 463,497 logged incidents.

Despite a rise in insurance payouts, the ABI reports the average price for motor insurance is £466—the lowest it’s been since 2017. The ABI thinks impending reforms to the Civil Liability Act legislation—aimed at reducing fraudulent whiplash claims—is part of the reason.

The legislation doesn’t come into force until April 2020 but insurers say they’re already reducing premiums because they’re expecting lower payouts.

Dangerously convenient

The ABI said part of the blame for the increase in car insurance payouts is the rise in keyless vehicle crime—also known as ‘relay theft/attack’, where, the Master Locksmiths Association say; thieves can get into a car via a relay attack in just 20 seconds.

Campaigners and politicians are now appealing to car companies to improve security, particularly in keyless cars, which have the convenient feature of letting you open and start your car without the need to take your key out of your pocket or bag.

Thatcham Research, which carries out research and testing for vehicle safety and security systems, developed the New Vehicle Security Assessment (NVSA) to assess brand-new vehicles and influence insurance group ratings.

This year is the first time that Thatcham Research has made public their results.

Laurenz Gerger, Policy Adviser for Motor Insurance at the ABI, said:

“Making these assessments public should spur motor manufacturers to take swift action to tackle this high-tech vulnerability.

“Meantime, consumers deserve to know how secure their cars are so they can take the necessary steps to reduce the likelihood that they become victims of crime.”

Thatcham Research gave five of the 11 models released in 2019 a ‘Poor’ security rating because their keyless entry/ignition, made them susceptible to relay theft.

Models that scored low on security:

Ford Mondeo
Hyundai Nexo
Kia ProCeed
Lexus UX
Toyota Corolla Hybrid

Without the keyless feature, Thatcham Research rated the overall security features as ‘Good’.

Richard Billyeald, Chief Technical Officer at Thatcham Research, said:

“Our calculations suggest that one per cent of all cars on the road today have keyless entry systems, but this technology is trickling down from the premium sector to more affordable cars.

“Until recently, all keyless systems used the exact same technology, so they were all vulnerable.

“Manufacturers are already working on new systems. A few new models already have set-ups that aren’t vulnerable to relay attacks. The functionality is the same, but they cannot be fooled by relay devices.”

Don’t get fobbed off

Thieves of keyless vehicles often work in pairs who buy a relay amplifier and a relay transmitter online.

Next, the pair targets a vehicle parked outside a house and, using the devices, can detect whether the car features keyless entry/ignition.

One criminal holds the transmitter near the car to capture the signal meant for the keyless fob. The other crook stands by the house with the amplifier to relay that signal to your fob. If the fob is close enough to the amplifier, the amplifier can detect, boost, and send the signal to the transmitter which acts as a key to your car. Police say the vehicles often get stripped to their parts, which the thieves then sell.

Apart from making sure you have locked your car, you can reduce the risk of it getting stolen by parking in a well-lit area and, once indoors, keeping your keyless fob away from windows or external doors. You can also keep your fob in a signal-blocking container—but test it by putting the key inside the container, then stand by your vehicle to make sure it doesn’t unlock. If your fob allows—switch off the signal. Check your manual or ask your dealer if it’s possible to disable the system.

If you want to go further with your security measures, you could buy a steering wheel lock, or even a wheel clamp to prevent thieves from driving away. Often the ‘hassle factor’ of these items are enough to cause criminals to sidestep your car. Fitting a tracker to your vehicle is another thing to consider.

Has anybody ever stolen your car? What do you think about keyless vehicles? Let us know in the comments.

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