Keyless theft: What it is and how to protect your car against it

As technology advances, keyless entry is becoming more common amongst daily drivers. While convenient, it's not without flaws – a fact thieves have been quick to realise. Keyless crime has, overall, risen nearly 50% in 5 years in the UK.

Today we're going to talk about how this form of car theft works. It's a serious issue, but fear not! With a little know-how, you and your car should be just fine.


Here's how it works

Let's start at the beginning, shall we? Keyless theft takes advantage of security vulnerabilities in cars that allow their owner to enter their vehicle without a key – simple so far. Also known as relay theft, this process sees criminals use a combination of a relay amplifier and a relay transmitter to get into the car.

It's a two-person job. Criminal A begins by standing close to the car, holding the transmitter in their hands. Criminal B takes their amplifier – as the name implies, a tool that amplifies signals – and passes it around the walls of the house.

The goal? Pick up the signal of the car key inside, amplify it, and get that car to open. In essence, the relay amplifier becomes a new car key. The signal is picked up by the transmitter that Criminal A is holding next to the car, and they're in.

A scary thought, to be sure. But, as we'll tell you next, there are steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim of keyless theft.


Clever criminals: How thieves are adapting

Criminal gangs can be a smart bunch. There's serious money to be made in car theft; the Home Office reported 111,999 cars as stolen in 2017 to 2018 – a large increase from the 75,308 reported in 2013-2014. In many cases, vehicles have scant hours to be recovered. Stolen cars are often shipped on the same day to Europe where they are broken down into parts to be sold.

At the moment, statements from UK industry research groups show around one percent of cars on the road to have keyless entry. As technology advances, though, that number increases. What used to be an exotic feature for luxury cars is steadily becoming an everyday feature for daily drivers.

Thieves know this. Gangs are always progressing from one form of theft to the next – whatever's easy and profitable. It's a business, after all. And the criminals are diversifying.

Popular brands for keyless theft include Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Range Rover and Land Rover. Police numbers are limited, and many vehicles are stolen from homes. Sadly, these thefts increase premiums for popular models; Range Rovers in west London are a striking example of rising premiums due to higher incidences of keyless theft.


Manufacturers fight back

Thankfully, it's not all doom and gloom. Manufacturers are developing fresh systems which trump the relay theft method. While this can mean a change in functionality – they often won't work in quite the same way for the owner – it does mean they'll be safer from theft.

It's a serious issue for big-name manufacturers in the automotive industry. Nobody wants their cars to be associated with easy theft, and experts in the automotive insurance sector expect to see group ratings rise for brands that can secure their cars from keyless theft.


Here's how to protect your car from keyless theft

Let's get straight to some practical tips on how to secure your vehicle.


Consider a Faraday pouch

A fancy name! Named, unsurprisingly, after inventor Michael Faraday, these pouches block signals from leaving – or entering – them. Using clever signal-blocking material, they're a simple and effective way to avoid ever becoming a victim of relay theft. Simply place your key inside, and you're good to go.

Just be sure to test your pouch if you buy one; experts have found some Faraday pouches to be ineffective. Simply standing next to your car with the key in the pouch will tell you; if it unlocks, consider a new pouch to replace the old one.


Invest in a tracker

It's good to have a back-up for the worst-case scenario. Trackers work – staggeringly so. Studies on their effectiveness have found cars equipped with trackers to have a 96% recovery rate following a theft – a serious increase from the 50% seen in cars without them.


Install barriers

Interestingly, trumping car theft is as much about deterring thieves than stopping them in the act. Highly visible security items, such as a large wheel lock on your car's steering wheel or parking posts in your driveway, can make your car simply more trouble than it's worth to nick.

We also recommend all homeowners with driveway gates to lock them every night and, if practical, during the day. Consider it from the thieves' perspective: there's plenty of 'marks' out there, so they can afford to pass by yours if it looks too tricky to take.


Turn that key off!

While not all keyless entry cars can do it, some do have the option to turn the car key off like you would a computer. If your vehicle has keyless entry, check in your manual or with your manufacturer. You might be able to simply turn your key on when you need it – an easy win. 


Avoid windows and doors

No, we don't mean in general – we're talking about where you store your key. Most owners will have them on the wall or on a table by the door and by a wall. Amplifiers are powerful, but they mainly work on keys that they can get close to; storing yours further inside your house can trump them.

Simply storing your key in a place like the kitchen – as long as it's not close to a window, wall or door that leads outside – can do the trick. Peace of mind and better security in one easy step.


Disable the feature

If you're still concerned about keyless theft, you might be able to disable the feature on your car and key entirely. If you'd like to go this route, it's best to speak to your dealer or manufacturer directly to see if you can turn the system off altogether.


Don't panic!

In conclusion, keyless theft is real. You don't, however, need to live with the stress of wondering if you're at risk. Car theft statistics always talk about averages; most car theft is easily avoidable by following steps like the ones we've laid out above.

With a little diligence and a switch-up of how you handle and secure your car, you'll be one step ahead of the thieves.