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John Ducker: How to thwart high-tech car thieves

Higher priced luxury vehicles seem to be the main target of “relay” thieves, who often steal specific in-demand vehicles on order
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Even Teslas seem vulnerable to "relay attacks," a high-tech form of auto theft in which thieves hijack your own key fob remotely to gain access to your vehicle. Credit: Tesla

They’re known as “relay attacks.” It’s a technique increasingly used by car thieves to enlist your own key fob so that they can help themselves to your car. It’s not all that new in the world of auto theft but several rashes of this insidious problem are cropping up again all over the world, so it’s worth discussing.

Higher priced luxury vehicles seem to be the main target of “relay” thieves, who often steal specific in-demand vehicles on order. Often these vehicles are quickly dispatched to port cities, loaded into containers and shipped overseas, never to be seen again.

The key fob is a miracle of modern automotive technology, but its strength for driver convenience is also its weakness and it’s all about the radio waves.

Your key fob is actually a small radio transmitter which sends out a signal telling your car you need to get in. Pushing the fob button tells a computer inside your car to send a signal back to the fob, requesting a verification code. If the fob sends back the correct code, the vehicle unlocks the doors.

When starting the engine, there is a second small transmitter that sends out the same type of signal to the fob requesting a code, in this case to allow a module to start the engine. This all occurs at light speed, making engine start-up as effortless as the push of a button.

Unfortunately, tech-minded thieves have figured the process out and use it to their advantage.

It usually takes two crooks to make it happen, each one equipped with a transmitter/receiver device preprogrammed to frequencies used by car fobs. I don’t know exactly how these contraptions work, nor do I care to know and it’s not something I would share even if I could.

Suffice it to say that one thief scans around your house near where your key is likely hung up, like the front door or inside the garage, and seeks out the signal coming from your fob. Once that signal is captured it is amplified and relayed to the second thief who is hanging out near your car. Thief number two picks up the relayed signal and starts continually pushing a button on his or her device which eventually receives the correct unlock signal from thief number one.

Once inside your car the same process is repeated but this time with the relay devices seeking out and transmitting the engine start code. Et voila.

Teslas seem vulnerable to the current wave of theft but it’s been a concern for all sorts of vehicles and a concern for police for several years now.

Tesla hasn’t cracked the top 10 of most stolen cars in Canada yet, those distinctions (for 2020) belong to:

2018 Honda CRV

2017 Lexus RX350/RX450

2017 Honda CRV

2018 Lexus RX350.RX450

2018 Ford F150

2019 Honda CRV

2018 Toyota Highlander

2017 Toyota Highlander

2019 Lexus RX350/RX450

2017 Dodge Ram 1500

So what can be done?

One of the simplest deterrents is the steering wheel lock. Why? The enemy of the car thief is time, or lack of it. They want to be in, out and on their way in minutes. Steering wheel locks, which run between $25-$100, are tough and durable. They take time to defeat and usually require tools the car thief doesn’t want to be caught carrying around. When thieves see your steering wheel locked up they’ll most likely give your car a pass.

Move keys deeper inside your home away from exit/entry doors. This limits the ability of the thief near the house door trying to pick up a signal. Better still, move the fob further inside but also place it inside a radio frequency shield bag or a Faraday bag. Named after the famous electromagnetic physicist, these bags block the fob’s emissions signals. They cost between $15 to $40.

There are several higher tech gadgets which tackle this problem too, like kill switches, GPS trackers and anti-tampering apps which work on your smartphone. But let a trustworthy professional with an anti-vehicle theft track record do the install work. Modern vehicle electronic systems are like a stealth fighter these days. You could DIY yourself to disaster if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I was skeptical about things like the Apple Air Tag which is a small tracking device you can attach to pretty much anything. At $50 dollars it seemed a little gimmicky. But some people I know used them to track their furniture with movers recently and they worked well.

Just like basic vehicle maintenance, a little thought and keeping proactive goes a long way to thwart thieves, saving you from that heartache of finding an empty space where your car used to be.