Over the past five years the number of stolen vehicles has almost doubled, according to Home Office figures, and it seems that keyless car technology could be significantly to blame.

New research from insurer LV= shows that, in each of the last four years (2016-19), insurance claims for car theft have jumped by 20%, with keyless car theft accounting for a large proportion of the claims.

An increasing number of cars are now fitted with keyless entry which allows you to unlock and start your car without having to faff about with a bunch of keys. But while many might assume that a modern car with the latest tech features would be better protected against theft, keyless cars can in fact be more vulnerable to ‘tech-savvy’ criminals.

How does keyless technology work?

Keyless entry works by using a keyless fob that uses short-range radio waves. The fob transmits a signal which is picked up by a receiver in your car. If the signal is recognised, the car doors unlock (in some cases you may have to press a button). A similar process is then used to start the car.

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Although this type of keyless technology is hugely convenient, at the same time it can make your vehicle more vulnerable to theft. Through what’s known as a ‘relay attack’, criminals use widely available signal relay devices to ‘trick’ the car into thinking the correct device is present (when it may actually be metres away inside your house) by amplifying its signal.

Footage from front-door household security cameras has emerged showing thieves using devices to capture the signals from fobs perhaps left on a table in the hallway or in a jacket pocket. As soon as the thieves get access, the car can be driven off in seconds.

Rising claims

The figures from LV= show that luxury car makes such as Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Lexus, Mercedes, Porsche and Tesla are increasingly affected by keyless theft, accounting for almost half (48%) of all ‘theft of’ vehicle claims.

In addition, the number of claims involving theft of parts or of possessions from vehicles has also risen sharply (140%) over the past four years, with the most common target being catalytic converters. Thieves love these because of their precious metal content.

Metropolitan areas the worst

The LV= data also indicates that vehicle crime has risen the most across the UK’s main metropolitan areas. Vehicle theft claims have jumped by 265% in London in the past four years, and over 100% in London, Birmingham, Nottingham and Greater Manchester.

What is the car industry doing to help?

Consumer group Which? has been calling for more stringent security on keyless entry cars and recently contacted the manufacturers of 33 car brands to find out what they were doing. It reported that only two brands had implemented security fixes across their entire range and 14 brands had not done anything at all.

Meanwhile, vehicle safety and security experts Thatcham Research awarded ‘poor’ ratings to the following car models with keyless systems after security engineers were able to access and start the vehicle using relay attack equipment:

  • Mazda CX-30
  • MG HS Excite T-GDI
  • Subaru Forester e-Boxer XE Premium
  • Vauxhall Corsa Ultimate Turbo 100

On a positive note, some car manufacturers are now fitting new fobs with a motion sensor that deactivates the signal when the key is not in use. However, Richard Billyeald, chief technology officer at Thatcham, warns that while this is a “good, short-term fix, [it] is not the ultimate solution to the keyless vulnerability which should be designed out of new vehicles completely in the future”.

He advises anyone buying a new car to “go into the dealership with their eyes open to keyless security and if they do intend to specify the system, ask if a fix has been introduced”.

In other words, don’t be fobbed off.

How can I protect my car?

To help keep your car secure and reduce the chance of being a victim of keyless entry theft, take a look at the tips below:

  • Be careful where you put your key fob: keep it as far away from the vehicle as you can, as well as away from the windows and doors in your home. It can be a good idea to invest in a protective Faraday bag to prevent the fob from sending out digital signals, or alternatively store the fob in a metal container such as a biscuit tin.
  • Lock your vehicle: even if you’re only going to be away from your car for a couple of minutes – to pay for parking, for example – always lock your car. Make sure it’s double locked and all security features are enabled by pressing your key fob twice.
  • Invest in security measures: this could be as simple as fitting a steering wheel lock or a wheel clamp or, if you have a hybrid vehicle, fitting a specific catalytic converter lock which makes it harder for thieves to remove the part. It’s also worth investing in a tracker system, such as a Thatcham approved device, if you don’t already have one.
  • Watch out for hackers: many vehicles require log-in details or use smartphone apps to make the most of new features, such as connected maps or news reports which are beamed onto the infotainment screen. Always use strong passwords for any online account and never give anyone access to your car app or portal account.

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Heather Smith, managing director at LV= GI, says: “Consumers need to keep on top of new innovations and take extra precautions to ensure they stay one step ahead of criminals who may try and take advantage of them, and their cars.

“The police can only do so much, so it’s vital that drivers do everything they can to protect their vehicle, especially those driving a luxury or prestige car that is likely to attract attention.

“Most car theft happens near people’s homes, but with a better understanding of the technology and a few simple security measures, you can make your car a lot less appealing to thieves.”