New figures show that hundreds of the UK’s top-selling cars are at risk of theft by criminals who use technology to hack into keyless systems. Four out of five of the UK’s most popular cars are on the list of the models vulnerable to such crimes.

Independent consumer advocate, Which? analysed the results of data from the motoring organisation General German Automobile Club (ADAC), a to show the impact of so-called keyless or ‘relay’ attacks, on the nation’s five best-selling cars.

Vehicle thefts up almost 50%

Lots of new cars now have keyless entry systems. With the touch of your hand, you can open the door, ridding you of the need to fumble for keys inside pockets and bags. If the vehicle also has a keyless start-stop function, you need only press a button to start the engine.

Yet, cheap gadgets available online, enable thieves to fool these systems into allowing them to unlock and steal—or steal from—vehicles in minutes.

The Office for National Statistics figures released last week showed that, between 2017 and 2018, police in England and Wales received around 111,999 reports of vehicle theft—an increase of 48.7% in just five years compared to the 2013-2014 figure of 75,308 stolen vehicles. This equals 300 stolen cars each day—or one every five minutes. In only the five months from April to September 2018, there were reports of almost 60,000 vehicle thefts.

While car theft is much lower than it was in the 1990s, experts say the number of thefts is rising in line with increased use of keyless technology. Another factor may be the government’s cuts to the policing budget, which has meant numerous police forces have had to reduce the number of officers they employ. There has been a 15% reduction of police officers since 2006, with 5,975 officers lost between 2013 to 2018 alone. Police presence hasn’t been this low since the 1980s.

ADAC tested 237 car models with the keyless unlock and start function and found security flaws in 230 of the models. Models from over 30 brands could be unlocked and started by using a relay attack, including BMW, Peugeot, and Volvo, while a further four models could be either unlocked or started.

Which? found the Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Golf, Nissan Qashqai, and Ford Focus are all among the cars vulnerable to this kind of theft. Only the Vauxhall Corsa was not susceptible because it is not available with keyless entry or ignition.

Only three keyless cars ADAC tested were impervious to relay attacks because they use technology that can determine the distance from the vehicle with more precision. These cars, all manufactured by Jaguar Land Rover, were the 2018 Jaguar I-Pace; and the latest Discovery and Range Rover models.

‘An ongoing battle’

Which? say criminals have used the relay attack for several years but that the number of keyless thefts has soared because carmakers have done nothing to protect their cars from relay attacks. They claim car manufacturers have “sacrificed the security of scores of modern cars for the sake of convenience”.

Editor of Which? magazine, Harry Rose said:

“With more than one car being stolen every seven minutes, it’s important that people can feel confident in the security of their vehicle.

“The fact that so many cars on the road are susceptible to keyless theft simply isn’t good enough.

“We want manufacturers to up their game when it comes to making their vehicles safe from theft.”

It’s unfortunate that it’s not just the owner who suffers when somebody steals their car. An increase in car theft figures carries the potential for the likelihood of increased premiums for every person paying for car insurance. So, are manufacturers doing enough to protect their customers?

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) Chief Executive Mike Hawes, says:

“Industry takes vehicle crime extremely seriously and any claims otherwise are categorically untrue.

“New cars are more secure than ever, and the latest technology has helped bring down theft dramatically with, on average, less than 0.3% of the cars on our roads stolen.

“Criminals will always look for new ways to steal cars; it’s an ongoing battle and why manufacturers continue to invest billions in ever more sophisticated security features—ahead of any regulation.

“However, technology can only do so much and we continue to call for action to stop the open sale of equipment with no legal purpose that helps criminals steal cars.”

Gone in 18 seconds

Car thieves carry out keyless theft by operating as a pair, using two devices; a relay amplifier and a relay transmitter. These devices pick up on the electromagnetic signals transmitted by the keyless fob from inside the driver’s home.

One thief, holding the amplifier, stands close to the building they suspect the keyless fob to be. The amplifier detects the key fob’s signal, amplifies it, and sends it to the transmitter held by the second thief who stands next to the car they plan to steal.

The car detects the signal and unlocks in the same way it would if the key fob were near the car, allowing the criminals to start the car using the push-button ignition. In under one minute, the criminals could drive your car away, all without your key leaving your home. In fact, Which? says theft via relay attacks can take a mere 18 seconds to complete.

To protect yourself from becoming a victim, consider using a Faraday cage to protect your key. Made of layers of metallic material, these work by blocking the signal. You can find various key wallets and containers online. Don’t forget to protect your spare key too. If you want still more protection, consider using a steering lock.

Owners of older Mercedes cars can switch off the keyless signal by double-clicking the lock button on the key and owners of some Mazda and Peugeot models can have the keyless entry system disabled for free by contacting their local dealer.

Have you been a victim of keyless car theft? Is it worth forgoing the security of your car for a small convenience? Tell us in the comments.

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