Vehicles with keyless systems targeted in new car theft trend

File picture: Reinhart Julian via Unsplash.

File picture: Reinhart Julian via Unsplash.

Published Feb 15, 2023


Johannesburg – Your car’s keyless entry and start system might seem sophisticated, and it certainly is, but you might be surprised to learn how easy it is for cybercriminals to circumvent it.

A recent episode of “Carte Blanche” brought attention to a new gimmick where brazen car thieves are making off with high-end keyless cars in seconds.

In 2022, the Insurance Crime Bureau saw a significant increase in the theft of newer SUVs (among others) that have keyless entry and ignition technology. It is a relatively new trend in South Africa but catching on quickly with up to five or six keyless cars being stolen daily.

The frightening reality is that it is a crime so perfectly executed it’s almost impossible to spot as thieves are making off with high-end vehicles while their owners blissfully go about their business.

Dewald Ranft, chairperson of the Motor Industry Workshop Association (MIWA), says the organisation’s workshops have received queries from concerned motorists. He says motorists by now have become more au fait with jamming attacks and are used to double-checking that their car is locked before leaving but this new tactic, also called relay theft, is so much more sophisticated and leaves all models with keyless entry and start systems vulnerable.

So, how exactly does keyless car theft happen? Ranft says the criminals work in teams of up to six people to actually ‘hijack’ a vehicle’s key signal. The owner believes the car to be safe once he has checked that it is locked. The theft requires a minimum of two people with two suitcases/folders that act as a scanner/amplifier and data receiver/transmitter. They communicate with the car’s key and intercept the vehicle’s opening signal and are able to start the engine.

It takes only 30 seconds as shown in the “Carte Blanche” insert. The criminals then often use a jammer to prevent the car’s tracker signal from being picked up. They buy themselves time until a new key can be programmed which takes just 30 minutes.

Ranft says it’s a trend motorists need to be aware of. For those looking for a simple solution you can revert to old-time techniques with a steering wheel lock or gear-stick lock or you can keep your key in a metal tin or something called a Faraday pouch or a ‘fob guard‘, which is made from materials that block its signal.

Ranft says there is also another easier way with an electronic keyfob. When you leave the car it automatically secures the keyfob and as a result the key signal cannot be intercepted. “It is also easy to deactivate. You just need to double-tap the keyfob in your pocket or bag to open the door and start the engine. Installation is also simple. It takes the form of a clip which easily and quickly can be put on the keyfob battery without interfering with the car’s electrical system.

These can be fitted directly or with the assistance of a qualified technician.

“Criminals have become so sophisticated these days that it is almost impossible for car manufacturers to keep up with these new trends. Fortunately, there are some solutions available and motorists with keyless systems just need to be extra vigilant,” says Ranft.