Car theft within the UK has risen by almost 50% in the last five years, with the blame pointed at modern car keys and falling police numbers.
According to data published by the home office, 111,999 vehicles were stolen in the financial year 2017/18 – up from 75,308 in the same period for 2013/14. That equates to a car being stolen every five minutes.
The consumer group Which? has reported that the rise in car thefts is down to the increasing fitment of keyless entry/keyless start systems in new cars, which are more susceptible to a growing type of crime called ‘relay theft’.
The Which? report is based on data from the General German Automobile Club (ADAC), a roadside recovery organisation, which tested 237 keyless cars and found all but three were hampered by relay attacks.
What are keyless entry systems?
“Keyless” car keys do not require the user to push a button or insert the key into a lock to open or start the car. It’s all done automatically.
The car key sends out a continuous short-range signal to alert the car to its presence. When the car “hears” the key’s signal, signifying that the key (and therefore the owner) is nearby, it allows the doors to be unlocked and the ignition to be started.
You have to be standing within about half a metre of the car for the system to work, otherwise the car should refuse to unlock or start.
What is relay theft?
Relay theft exploits keyless entry systems by finding and boosting the signal from a keyless car key to trick the car into thinking that the key is nearby.
The process usually involves two thieves working together (see below). Thief 1 waits next to your car with an electronic device called a relay box. Thief 2, with another relay box, tries to get reasonably close to your key.
If Thief 2 can get within a few metres of the key, it’s usually enough to amplify the signal and send it back to Thief 1 next to the car, who can then unlock the car and start the engine.
This means that even if your keys are safely inside your locked home or office, your car is probably vulnerable to this type of theft.
The electronic relay boxes used for this type of car theft are readily and cheaply available, and basic tutorials on how to run this type of theft are also easily found online.
Most top-selling cars are vulnerable
Which? has put together a list of the models sold in the UK that are most at risk.
Three of the four best-selling cars in the UK are vulnerable to relay theft. The Ford Fiesta, Volkswagen Golf, Nissan Qashqai and Ford Focus have been branded the most vulnerable, whereas the Vauxhall’s Corsa, the country’s third best-seller, was rated low risk due to it still using a physical key to start the car.
The 2018 Land Rover Discovery and 2018 Range Rover were the only two vehicles immune from relay theft, according to the ADAC tests, as their keys employ a ore sophisticated system for determining the distance between the car and the key, so they can’t be duped. However, Which? warns that cars built before 2018 may not have this technology and may still be vulnerable to relay theft.
Thieves emboldened by fewer police on streets
RAC Insurance has argued that cuts to police numbers have contributed to the increase in car theft over the last five years.
Police numbers are at their lowest since the 1980s, with forces around the country having lost more than 20,000 personnel since 2006.
RAC Insurance director, Mark Godfrey, said: “From 2013 to 2018 we lost 5,975 police officers but looking further back to 2006 the story is even worse with 21,958 fewer officers which represents a 15% reduction.
“Every vehicle stolen and not returned safely to its owner represents a cost that is borne by every motorist who lawfully pays their insurance. If the number of thefts could be reduced, then insurance premiums would undoubtedly be lower.”
Which? challenged the car manufacturers about their security standards, with only a few providing any comments.
BMW and Mercedes claim to be equipping keys for their latest models with motion sensors. These can detect when the key has been put down so the keyless signals will stop being emitted. Of course, that doesn’t help if the key is still in your pocket.
Mazda and Peugeot said that customers can go to their nearest dealerships to have their keyless systems deactivated.