How to prevent keyless car theft

Many popular cars are at risk of keyless car theft. Here’s what keyless car theft actually is, which cars are at risk and how to prevent keyless car theft from happening to you.

Many popular cars are at risk of keyless car theft. Here’s what keyless car theft actually is, which cars are at risk and how to prevent keyless car theft from happening to you.

Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
7
minute read
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Last Updated 18 OCTOBER 2022

What is keyless car theft?

Keyless car theft, also known as ‘relay car theft’, is a method used by thieves to steal a person’s car using keyless car entry. Opportunistic thieves often buy the tech necessary for keyless car theft online.

The equipment includes two simple ‘relay’ boxes. The thieves typically work in pairs - one places a relay box near your car and another puts a box close to your home where your key is likely to be kept.

The aim of this is to extend the key’s signal, which fools the car’s technology into thinking the key is nearby. When it works, a criminal can open your car and steal it, sometimes in just a matter of seconds.

Which cars are vulnerable to keyless car theft?

Any car with keyless entry is potentially at risk. Keyless entry cars let the driver unlock and start the car with the key fob still in their pocket or handbag. Once in the car, the driver simply presses a button to power up the engine.

If your car uses this type of system and you don’t have adequate security, you could become a victim to keyless car theft.

Motor industry safety standards organisation Thatcham Research, which rates cars for security, looks at their resistance to relay attacks as part of its tests.

Car manufacturers are beginning to deal with the problem, with Audi, BMW, Ford, Jaguar, Porsche and Volkswagen introducing new technologies to make keyless cars more resilient to relay attacks.

Does car insurance cover keyless car theft?

Most, but not all, comprehensive and third party fire and theft car insurance policies will cover keyless car theft. But from the beginning of 2021, drivers are likely to face car insurance premium hikes if they own a car with keyless entry - unless those cars include countermeasures against this type of theft, or owners install approved security features. These could include a tracking device, a car alarm and a steering wheel lock to deter potential thieves.

A car’s vulnerability to keyless theft will soon be measured in the official vehicle security ratings that insurance providers use to set their premiums. Car makers are being encouraged to design out the vulnerabilities of keyless cars in their latest models and make it harder for thieves to steal them.

How to prevent keyless car theft

This might all sound a bit worrying, but there are security measures that can help protect your car from keyless car theft and car theft in general:

1. Avoid parking your car on the street
It’s always preferable to park your car off the street overnight. Keyless car theft often happens in residential areas at night. Make sure there are no expensive valuables or kit on show in your car to tempt thieves.

2. Make sure your car is properly locked before walking away
If you’re busy getting stuff out of the car or in a hurry, it can be easy to forget to lock it – especially if you don’t have to turn a key.

3. Choose a model with a sleep option on the fob
If you like the convenience of keyless, choose a car where the fob maximises security. Newer fob designs have motion sensors inside that detect when the fob hasn’t been moved for some time, triggering a sleep mode. This means it won’t respond to a relay signal from outside and will only switch back into full working mode when you pick it up. Make sure you understand how long the fob has to be still before it goes to sleep – for some it’s a couple of minutes, while for others it could be up to half an hour. Not all cars come with this feature, and for some that do, it’s an optional extra.

4. Turn off your keyless fob’s wireless signal
Some vehicle models allow the fob key to be switched off when you’ve finished using your car and turned back on when you’re ready to use it again. Your car’s manual or the dealership or manufacturer’s website should be able to help you see if this is possible. The process may involve holding one button, while pressing another in a particular combination. If you use your mobile phone as a car key, which is possible for some models, take the same precautions as you would with the fob key.

5. Buy a signal-blocking pouch/wallet or Faraday bag
These ‘bags’ are designed to intercept the signal from a relay box, making keyless car theft all but impossible. Most pouches/wallets/Faraday bags – also called cages – are available in pairs online, for under £10. If you get one, make sure you test it to check it works properly. Putting your keys in a metal box at night will also work.

6.  Keep your keys away from entry points
At the very least, remember not to leave your keys near a door or window. Put them as far away as possible from the car. If your car is at the front of the house, then put your keys at the back of your home.

7.  Hide your spare keys 
If you have spare keys, remember to put them in a safe, signal-blocking place.

8.  Use a steering wheel lock, wheel clamp or alarm
For some people, the whole point of keyless car systems is to avoid faffing about when getting in or out of the car, so using a steering wheel lock defeats the object. But having a visible deterrent, like a steering wheel lock or wheel clamp, works in two ways. It can make thieves decide against stealing your car and look for an easier vehicle to target. It also creates an additional barrier that means it takes longer to steal the car, with more potential for thieves to be spotted.

9. Install security features at your home
Adding features such as external motion detectors, CCTV and lighting can also protect your car if it’s parked on your driveway. Locking driveway posts can work in some situations too.

10. Park your cars defensively
This won’t work for everyone, but if you have more than one car and appropriate space, use the less valuable car to block in and protect the expensive one. This may not stop a thief, but it might slow down or deter them.

11. Have your key reprogrammed
It’s a good idea to have your keys reprogramed if you’ve lost them or bought the car second-hand. That way you can be sure the previous owner, or anyone who finds your lost keys, can’t get into your vehicle.

12. Keep on top of the tech
Some thieves will target the onboard diagnostic port inside the car to jump start it. Simply fitting a secure cap over the port can prevent this. Likewise, if your car has onboard WiFi, switching it off when you’re not using the car can reduce the chance of it being hacked. Check your manual to find out how to do this. Finally, make sure you keep your car’s onboard software up to date if possible. Manufacturers will bring out security updates so check regularly to see if there’s one for your vehicle. It’s possible on some vehicles to update the software ‘over the air’ without having to plug anything in.

If, despite all your precautions, you’re unlucky enough to have your car stolen, an onboard GPS tracking device can help you and the police locate it.

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Whether you own a keyless car or not, don’t forget to get your car insurance sorted. It could protect you should someone manage to get away with your vehicle.

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