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Keyless car theft: what is it and how to prevent it

September 22, 2022 by

If you’ve ever wondered why a £100,000 Range Rover has an aftermarket steering lock fitted, it’s probably to prevent keyless car theft.

You’d like to think that car theft was a thing of the past in this day and age. But while immobilisers and alarms have made life much harder for crooks over the years, some keyless entry systems provide a weakness in modern cars, which thieves like to take full advantage of.

More than 101,000 cars were stolen in 2021, with many of these cases being attributed to keyless thefts.

So what is keyless car theft, and what can you do to prevent it? Well, the good news is it’s not very difficult or expensive to provide some extra protection for your pride and joy.

What is a keyless car?

A keyless-entry system allows you to get into and start your car without ever having to fumble in your pocket for a key.

These systems work using short-range radio waves, with the key in your pocket or bag transmitting a signal that’s picked up by a receiver in your car.

If your car recognises the signal as the correct one you’ll be able to unlock it by opening the door as normal, or pressing a small button on it before opening the door, after which you can hop in the car and start it.

If the car doesn’t recognise the signal as being correct, or there is no signal, you can pull the door handle as much as you want but the car won’t open.

It’s worth noting that not all keyless systems will both open and start the car. Some will unlock the doors, but still require you to insert a physical key into the ignition in order to start the engine.

How does keyless car theft work?

Keyless theft (otherwise known as relay theft) is relatively simple; all it requires is two small boxes of electronics, which thieves can use to open your car in as little as 60 seconds.

Crooks will typically work in pairs to commit relay theft, with one holding a relay amplifier, and the other a relay transmitter. They will usually target a house with a desirable car on the driveway, and their equipment will help them determine if the car is one with keyless entry.

The relay amplifier is used to pick up the signal transmitted by your key. One of the thieves will walk around the external walls of your house with the amplifier, hoping to detect the signal emitted by the keyless key.

An accomplice will stand by the car, and when their receiver picks up and replicates the amplified signal from the key, the car will be fooled into thinking the legitimate owner is there, allowing the vehicle to be unlocked and driven away.

Which cars are most likely to be stolen by keyless car theft?

It’s fair to say that some models of car are more susceptible to keyless theft than others. First (and this may not be surprising), in order to be vulnerable to this type of theft, a car must have keyless entry – remote central locking is not vulnerable to the same hacking techniques.

A study by Thatcham Research in 2020 assessed how resilient a number of cars were to keyless theft, and awarded Poor, Basic and Superior ratings them. It’s fair to say a number of manufacturers may have beefed up their security since then, but these results show that some systems can be better at resisting keyless theft than others.

Vehicle Rating
BMW 218i Gran Coupe M Sport SUPERIOR
Hyundai i10 Premium Mpi BASIC
Land Rover Discovery Sport D150 SUPERIOR
Mazda CX-30 POOR
Porsche Taycan Turbo SUPERIOR
Škoda Superb SUPERIOR
Subaru Forester e-Boxer XE Premium POOR
Tesla Model 3 BASIC
Toyota Supra SUPERIOR
Vauxhall Corsa Ultimate Turbo 100 POOR

Credit: Thatcham Research

How to prevent keyless car theft

Having read the above, you may want to take a couple of extra steps to protect your car from keyless theft. Fortunately, these are fairly straightforward.

Keep your keys away from your car

The first step is to keep your key as far away from your car as possible, and as far away from the windows and doors of your house, making it harder for criminals to detect and amplify your key signal.

The same is true if you park your car on the street. Parking it a distance from your house will make it harder to amplify the signal, also thieves won’t necessarily know which house contains the corresponding keys.

Buy a Faraday pouch

A Faraday pouch or box uses a metallic lining to block radio waves from your keys so they can’t be amplified by crooks. They’re readily available online, and fairly inexpensive as well, with prices starting from as little as £5. While these are regarded as pretty effective, there’s no guarantee that they can block 100% of the signal from your key.

If you need a quick solution, you can try putting your keys in a biscuit tin. Some owners even go so far as to place them in the microwave, but this is tricky to recommend: if you forget they’re there and cook something without looking or thinking about it, you could fry your keys and destroy your microwave.

Physical measures

There’s no point in a thief going to all the effort of getting your car started if they can’t physically get it off the driveway. If you’re in a two-car household, and one of the cars doesn’t have keyless entry, use it to block the other one in. Failing this, you could also fit a lockable post to your driveway.

A steering lock will be a better solution for most people, though. These act both as a visual deterrent, and will add significant time to the job of stealing your car. The same is true of wheel clamps that lock around your car’s wheels, or a pedal box that encases your car’s accelerator, brake and clutch pedals.

Fit a tracking device

If the worst does happen and your car gets stolen, if it has previously been fitted with a tracking device, your chances of police recovering it will increase.

Having it professionally fitted will make it hard for the thieves to find and remove, while also making it easy for the police to locate the vehicle.

Insurance policies for expensive vehicles will often mandate a tracker, but even these aren’t foolproof. If thieves are able to locate and disable the tracker, or if the car ends up in a shipping container that blocks the tracker’s signal, you’re unlikely to see your vehicle again.

Take out GAP insurance

If you’re worried about your car being stolen, consider taking out GAP insurance for extra peace of mind.

Insurance companies will only pay the current market value of your car in the event of it being declared a ‘total loss’. This leaves you vulnerable to losing potentially thousands of pounds, especially as a new car will start to drop in value the second you drive it off the forecourt.

GAP insurance, or ‘Guaranteed Asset Protection’, covers the difference between the amount you paid for your car, or owe on your car if you have finance, and the amount your insurance company would give you if your car is stolen.

For example, if you bought your car for £30,000 and it is stolen within 6 months, your insurance provider may only pay out £26,000. With ‘return to invoice’ GAP insurance, you can expect to receive your £30,000 back as a total loss payment.

carwow is proud to partner with MotorEasy who is offering a 15% discount to all carwow customers who take out GAP insurance with them.

What are the manufacturers doing?

A number of manufacturers have introduced preventative measures aimed at curbing keyless car theft.

Fobs provided by car companies such as BMW, Audi, Ford and Mercedes now come fitted with a motion sensor that deactivates the signal when the key is resting; this reduces the chances of the key being cloned when the key is hanging up overnight, for example.

Jaguar and Land Rover, meanwhile, use ultra wide-band radio technology, which stops thieves being able to isolate the signal to your car.

Kia has also taken its own unique approach: previously announced it would provide a Faraday bag with every new car.

Many cars fitted with keyless entry allow you to turn the system off, so thieves can’t exploit weaknesses in the system, even though this will see you lose the convenience of having the feature fitted in the first place.

Disabling a keyless system is usually done with a combination of button presses on the key fob, or via your car’s infotainment system; check your handbook or with your dealer to determine if and how this can be done.

Keyless car theft FAQs

How do I know if my car has keyless entry?

Most cars with keyless entry and keyless start won’t have a visible key blade on the fob, so this is a pretty tell-tale sign. Other ways of telling if your car has keyless entry is to check with your dealer or in the owner’s manual.

Look for a button on the door handles as well, as this is another telltale, or simply try opening your car without touching the key.

Something to keep in mind is that not all keyless systems will both unlock and start the car. If you have to physically insert the key to start the engine, your car will be less susceptible to keyless theft.

Are all new cars keyless?

Not all new cars are keyless but the technology is becoming ever more popular. While in the past it was reserved for high-end cars, more affordable models now often have a keyless system.

How far can a keyless car go without the key?

For safety reasons, a car won’t just shut down as soon as it realises the key is missing. Typically, the car will flash a message on a screen saying the key is not detected, and will continue running until it is switched off, after which it won’t restart until the key is returned.

Many a couple’s weekend has been enlivened by the person with the key in their pocket being dropped off at a train station, only for the person dropping them off to frantically phone them soon after…

Can I turn off my car’s keyless entry?

Many keyless systems can be turned off on new cars, however you may have to check with your handbook or dealer to find out if this can be done, and how to do it. A lot of the time it involves a series of button presses on the key fob in a particular order.

Are keyless cars more expensive to insure?

While keyless cars aren’t necessarily more expensive to insure than other models, if the car is a likely target for thieves this can drive your premiums up.

Aside calculations related to who you are, where you live and what you do for a living, insurance premiums are based on the statistics that surround the model of car, such as how many are stolen or written off per year. This means if a particular car is often stolen, an insurer may charge more to cover it.

Will my insurance cover keyless car theft?

Yes, assuming you have met the conditions you agreed to when you took your policy out.

What happens to stolen cars?

Stolen cars can meet a variety of fates. Some are used in conjunction with other crimes, and may have cloned plates attached to them (IE a number plate from an identical model of car) to help evade detection. Other stolen cars may be shipped abroad and sold overseas. Anecdotally, we know of one individual whose car was stolen from their driveway overnight. It had a tracking device fitted, but this stopped transmitting after a short while, with authorities suggesting the car could be in a shipping container that was blocking the signal.

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