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How to deter car thieves on a budget

The UK has seen an increase in vehicle thefts recently, but you can take some precautions to keep your car safe without breaking the bank

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The global supply shortage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has put a strain on the new car market for almost two years now, but that is not the only knock-on effect. A shortage of car parts has led to a rise in car thefts in the UK – as we recently reported on The Car Expert, vehicle thefts in Britain in the last twelve months have surpassed 90,000.

Your car is likely to be one of the most valuable things you own, so what steps should you take to defend it against criminals? In truth, the most effective ways to deter criminals can be pretty costly, such as storing your car in a locked garage or fitting an expensive security camera to the side of your house, due to the myriad of headaches they cause for thieves.

That said, the large majority of car thefts in the UK are opportunistic in nature – criminals will look for an easy target that they can quickly steal – and if you park on your driveway or on the street, there are plenty of simple steps and relatively inexpensive products you can buy that are likely to convince potential criminals to keep on walking.

The most stolen cars in the UK

Source: Office of National Statistics (ONS), 2022

Unsurprisingly, the most commonly stolen cars in the UK are also some of the biggest-selling new cars, as well as some of the most aspirational. Although all new cars come with a level of anti-theft kit, like immobilisers and deadlocking doors, it’s still not enough to prevent a determined criminal.

Simple steps to deter car thieves

Let’s start with the basics, and some effective tips that you can put into action right now:

Park in a secure and well-lit area if possible
Where you choose to park can really make all the difference. Parking your car in an illuminated area can be a good deterrent, so keep an eye out for parking spaces on your street with an overhead street lamp, or perhaps line your driveway with some low-maintenance solar lights to increase the chance that potential thieves can be spotted.

Turn your car’s front wheels into the kerb
Parking your car in a position where it is not as easy for potential criminals to make a speedy getaway is another simple but effective deterrent. If a thief does manage to gain entry, the extra manoeuvring you have made them do could give you a few crucial seconds to get a good look at them and call the police.

Double-check your car is locked
Whether you use a key fob or a manual key, it is a good idea to make sure your car is locked by trying the door handles each time you park up. Even if your car has given you a headlight flash or an audible click to tell you it’s locked, some thieves use ‘jammers’ to intercept the signal between the fob and the car, leaving the car unlocked and vulnerable.

Take your valuables with you
A thief doesn’t necessarily want to steal your car – they might just be looking for a quick smash-and-grab of whatever you’ve left on the front seat. Even some loose change can give criminals the required motivation to target your car. If you’re particularly worried about car thefts in your area, it’s also a good idea to remove the rear parcel shelf to show that there’s nothing valuable in your boot.

Store your car’s documents at home
The glovebox may seem like a good place to keep your car’s logbook or service records, but storing these documents in your vehicle makes it easier to sell on if it’s stolen. This can also make you a victim of identity fraud, so don’t leave any other identifying documents in your car either, like bank statements or your driver’s licence.

Keep a lookout for suspicious tow trucks
Some professional thieves operate by hooking your car up to a tow truck and driving away, then breaking into the vehicle somewhere more private. Keep an eye out for unbranded tow trucks parked on your street, driven by people in casual dress. If you do spot something like this, report it to your local police ASAP.

Keep your keys in a tin box
If you’ve just finished off a tin of biscuits from the cupboard, you can use the empty tin – or any similar metal box – to protect your car from criminals. It may seem like a simple idea to hide your keys from sneaky thieves, but it’s actually a really useful way of protecting your car from a relay attack. What’s a relay attack, you ask? Read on…

Relay attacks and how to prevent them happening

Many modern ‘keyless’ car keys emit a near-continuous signal to alert the car that it’s nearby, allowing you to open the door and start the engine without pulling the key out of your pocket. That’s quite convenient, but it also presents a problem.

These keyless entry cars are vulnerable to a particular theft tactic called a relay attack, where one thief uses an inexpensive electronic device to capture the signal from a nearby car key (even if it’s inside your house) and relay it to another thief with another relay device who is waiting by your car. This tricks the vehicle into thinking the key is present and allows the thieves to unlock and potentially start it.

Therefore, it’s always a good idea to keep your key fob – and the spare – as centrally as possible inside your house, rather than close to doors or windows, so that relay thieves have difficulty reaching the fob’s signal. Or, as suggested above, you can shield the fob’s outgoing signal when you’re at home by placing the key in a covered tin box or a specially-designed faraday pouch.

You can also turn this keyless entry feature off. If you can’t find instructions for this in your car’s manual then contact your local dealership, who should be able to help.

Other common methods car thieves use include:

Hanoi burglary
Named after a police operation to combat such a burglary, this is where criminals gain access to your home using brute force to steal your car keys and make a quick getaway. It is actually a fairly common tactic in the UK, and can be disrupted by keeping your car keys in an inconspicuous locked drawer.

Turbo decoder theft
Thieves are known to buy turbo decoders traditionally used by blacksmiths to target cars with manual door locks. It is essentially a skeleton key that aligns to the shape of the empty keyhole to unlock the door.

Transponder key cloning
This type of theft can happen if thieves manage to get hold of your keys when it is at the local garage for repairs or at the car wash. The key is cloned, returned to the victim, and the car is stolen later when parked at home.

Handy purchases that improve your car’s security

Motion detector

Where: On your driveway or across the pavement from your car
Average price: £15 – £30

These inexpensive systems which monitor movement can alert you to any suspicious activity around your car in real time. However, they are prone to false alarms, either from passing pedestrians, your pets or strong wind.

Faraday pouch

Where: A key pouch that blocks your car key signals
Average price: £5 – £9

Storing your keys in these pouches at home greatly decreases the chance of your car being stolen in a relay attack by blocking your key fob’s signal. You can store other valuables in the pouch too, and they are easy to carry when you are out and about too. Faraday pouches are only really useful for those with keyless entry cars however.

Steering wheel lock

Where: Across your car’s steering wheel
Average price: £30 – £50

Fitting a steering wheel lock whenever you park will certainly make thieves think twice about targeting your car. They are a visual deterrent for opportunistic criminals, and seriously delay thieves who do manage to gain entry to your car. If a thief gets your car started and attempts to drive off, they won’t be able to manoeuvre the car, making the attempted theft pointless.

Steering wheel brake lock

Where: Hooks behind the car’s brake and the bottom of the steering wheel
Average price: £30 – £50

This device is essentially a metal hooked cane that stops thieves from being able to drive the car if they have gained entry. They are sturdy and very hard to remove at short notice.

Universal wheel lock

Where: To your car’s front wheel
Average price: £30 – £60

While it might make your car look like it’s been impounded and prompt a few surprised looks from your neighbours, a universal wheel lock fitted to one of your car’s front wheels is a great visual deterrent that’s sure to give any would-be thief a headache. It will delay your daily commute, however, so perhaps this device is best for the car on your driveway that you rarely take out for a spin.

GPS tracker

Where: Hidden inside the car, preferably somewhere difficult to get to
Average price: £45 – £150

This device is really for after your car has been stolen and it’s on the move. Most trackers on the market will be able to give you the location of your car accurate to ten metres, which helps you to inform the authorities and hopefully retrieve your car before it’s damaged, stripped or simply vanishes altogether.

Removable security post

Where: At the end of your driveway
Average price: £40 – £80

These installations are a useful deterrent if you park on a narrow driveway. It does take a bit more legwork than other security options however, these need to be bolted securely to the concrete of your driveway. When installed, the post will stop thieves who have gained entry to your vehicle from reversing out of the driveway, and the post can be folded to the floor before you drive away.

Security window etching

Where: On the windows of your car
Average price: £20

This consists of visibly etching all the windows of a vehicle with the logo of the International Security Register (ISR) and a code unique to the vehicle. It’s a good visual deterrent, and also increases the chances of your car being spotted and retrieved should it be stolen.

Anti-theft clutch pedal lock

Where: Underneath the car’s clutch or accelerator
Average price: £12 – £25

This is a small metal stand that sits underneath the car’s clutch or accelerator pedal and locks in place, meaning that the pedals can’t be used. This makes the car useless without removing the pedal lock, which isn’t easy without the keys. Unlike a steering wheel lock, however, it’s not really visible so doesn’t have the same deterrence factor.

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Sean Rees
Sean Rees
Sean is the Deputy Editor at The Car Expert. A enthusiastic fan of motorsport and all things automotive, he is accredited by the Professional Publishers Association, and is now focused on helping those in car-buying need with independent and impartial advice.