Skip to content

How to prevent keyless car theft

Many popular cars are at risk of keyless car theft. Whether your car is started and secured by a fob, a card, or even by logging into an official app, there are some important steps to take in order to protect your vehicle. Tech-savvy criminals have the chance to steal signals, clone digital keys, and take your car in a matter of seconds.

Fortunately, there are several effective ways to protect your car from theft, which we’ll explore in this guide. 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. Whether your car is started and secured by a fob, a card, or even by logging into an official app, there are some important steps to take in order to protect your vehicle. Tech-savvy criminals have the chance to steal signals, clone digital keys, and take your car in a matter of seconds.

Fortunately, there are several effective ways to protect your car from theft, which we’ll explore in this guide. Here’s what keyless car theft actually is, which cars are at risk, and how to prevent keyless car theft from happening to you.

Written by
Julie Daniels
Motor insurance comparison expert
Reviewed by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
27 JUNE 2023
7 min read
Share article

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, or the items inside of it, using keyless car entry. By making your keyless car think your personal digital key has been used, thieves can essentially trick it into unlocking without having to break windows or set off alarms.

Opportunistic thieves often buy the tech necessary for keyless car theft online, and usually work in pairs, using relay boxes to fool the cars technology into thinking the car key is nearby. When it works, a criminal can open your car and steal it, sometimes in just a matter of seconds.

But how prevalent is this issue in the UK? And how can it affect your own keyless car?

The rise of keyless car theft in the UK

The figures surrounding keyless car theft in the UK are  eye opening – this isn’t an infrequent crime. A report in the summer of 2022 found:

Between September 2021 and 2022 alone, the UK saw an increase in car theft of 29%. In total, just over 72,000 vehicles were stolen during that 12-month period.

Years before this was a rising issue in the UK, the European Automobile Association (ADAC) conducted a test of keyless vehicles and their safety. The results showed that all but three of the 300 vehicles tested were able to be illegally unlocked and started.

This combination of European testing concerns and rising UK crime statistics have revealed a troubling gap between keyless drivers, manufacturers, and the overall knowledge about the various methods of car theft.

The different kinds of keyless car theft

Being prepared is key to prevention. So what are the main types of keyless car theft to be aware of? And how do these thieves go about targeting you and your vehicle?

  • Hacking
    While app hacking isn’t particularly prominent, the cloud-based technologies associated with cybercrime continue to adapt and evolve. Due to smartphones allowing car owners to unlock their cars – as well as share digital keys between devices – there’s an opportunity for criminals to log into the app using your information.
  • Signal relaying
    Keyless car technology relies on a short-range signal. This signal has a reach between approximately 1.8 to 2.7 metres, meaning that when the car is close enough, the vehicle notes the signal, and unlocks the doors to your vehicle. Thieves can relay that signal via a wireless transmitter placed near your front door or window, intercepting the signal from your digital key before relaying it to your car. If another thief stands by your car and captures that relayed signal, the car will unlock.
  • Close-range testing
    Many keyless car owners aren’t aware that their fobs, if kept on a table or container close to their front doors and windows, may still be in the range of the vehicle. And while some keyless car systems may need a fob to be inside the vehicle to start the engine, your car could still be easily opened and explored for valuables.
  • Key programming
    All cars created over the last decade or so have a diagnostic port fitted as standard. This port is essentially a connector that allows mechanics to access a vehicle’s computer system in order to run tests. Criminals with an understanding of computer software have created a device that plugs directly into this port and allows blank key fobs to start its engine or unlock doors in a matter of seconds.

Which cars are vulnerable to keyless car theft?

Any car with keyless entry is potentially at risk — it’s estimated that 94% of cars stolen in the UK have keyless entry. 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. They work with car makers, law enforcement and insurers in order to identify potential problems with new technology and ways to mitigate theft.

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

While progress in technology has the potential to improve our quality of life and assist in everyday conveniences, it’s essential to remain vigilant against criminal activity and avoid becoming a victim of theft.

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. Understanding how UK criminals operate and knowing the different ways you may be targeted is the first step in preventing your car from being stolen or broken into. Putting the following simple tips and insights into action can help to keep your keyless car safe.

1. Avoid parking your car on the street at night
It’s always preferable to park your car off the street overnight. Keyless car theft often happens in residential areas in the evening or at night, with the most recent data from the Office of National Statistics showing that nearly four-fifths of vehicle-related thefts occur between 6pm and 6am. If you can’t avoid parking on the street, make sure there are no expensive valuables or kit on show in your car to tempt thieves, and follow as many of the security precautions on this list as possible.

2. Install a tracking device
Having a tracking device on your car can warn you of any suspicious activity by sending you an immediate alert in the event of a break-in. And, with the right device, cars that are stolen can be easily monitored in real time and found. This makes the job of tracking down a thief much easier for the authorities.

3. 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. Always double check that it’s secure before you go.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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, and 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.

7. 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, and vice versa.

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

9. 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.

There are also digital locks available for some keyless cars to prevent hackers from accessing your diagnostic port. 

10. Install security features at your home
Adding features such as external motion detectors, CCTV and lighting can protect your car if it’s parked on your driveway, while smart doorbell technology provides you with video and images to review in case of attempted theft. Locking driveway posts can work in some situations too.

11. 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 more expensive one. This may not stop a thief, but it might slow down or deter them.

12. Have your key reprogrammed
It’s a good idea to have your keys reprogrammed 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.

13. 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 or Bluetooth, 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 wirelessly 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.

Keyless car theft: frequently asked questions

How close to my keys do thieves need to be to catch my signal?

For a criminal to commit relay theft and trick your car into thinking your key is nearby, they only need to be within a distance of two-to-three metres of your car key. Within this range, there’s a chance that they’ll be able to capture the signal and unlock or start your keyless car.

Where should I keep my car keys to avoid criminals relaying its signal?

To reduce potential keyless car theft via signal relaying, it’s best to keep your keys away from front doors and windows. For a little extra security, you may also want to store your key fob in a tin or signal-blocking pouch (commonly called a Faraday pouch) to prevent thieves from gaining access to the signal.

How far can a keyless car get without the key?

It could arguably go any amount of distance before the thieves run out of petrol or the car is turned off. Some keyless vehicles will have a continuous beep that alerts the driver about a lack of a key in the car, but many cars can start and drive without a fob being present, if the criminals are tech savvy enough.

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 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 is 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.

Summary

Following the results of their previous studies, the ADAC called on car manufacturers to implement stronger security measures after they, once again, tested modern keyless cars for theft prevention. 

Out of 560 cars tested, they reported that only 5% of the vehicles were able to prevent a break-in from tests made using standard electronic devices that are readily available in many stores.

But, with a sound understanding of how criminals exploit these technologies, and a cautious approach to storing and monitoring your fob and car, the chances of a crime being committed can reduce significantly. Make sure to follow all the advice provided here in order to keep your vehicle as safe as possible.

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.

We can help you find a great deal on car insurance at a price that suits your budget.

Looking for a car insurance quote?

Compare car insurance quotes with us today and see if you could start saving.

Get a quote
Compare car insurance Get a quote

Julie Daniels - motor insurance comparison expert

Julie is passionate about delivering a great customer experience and rewarding people for saving on their insurance through our loyalty and rewards programme. She’s spoken to the media, including outlets like Sky News and Capital FM, about car and home insurance, as well as our rewards scheme.

Learn more about Julie

Rory Reid - car and technology expert

Rory Reid is a car and technology expert. He serves as the main presenter on Auto Trader’s YouTube channel and was previously a host on BBC Top Gear and its sister show Extra Gear. He is also a presenter on Fifth Gear. Previously, he hosted Sky TV’s Gadget Geeks, CNET’s Car Tech channel, BBC Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition and on the YouTube channel Fast, Furious & Funny.

Learn more about Rory