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To key or not to key?

It’s a popular feature on many new cars, but is keyless car technology opening up security problems for owners?

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There’s something still rather futuristic, and certainly highly convenient, about walking up to your car, touching the door handle to open it, jumping inside and pushing a button on the dashboard to start the engine (or in the case of electric vehicles, to wake up the system).

You haven’t once touched the car’s keys. No fumbling about in your pockets or wading through your handbag to find them. You still have a fob of some sort to operate your car, but you don’t physically have to take it out and use it.

It’s all clever stuff and one of the fastest growing features on today’s modern cars as manufacturers vie with each other to keep up with latest trends and advances in equipment.

But not having a key for your car can cause its own problems – certainly in the case of security, where crooks looking for easy pickings, have contributed to a recent rise in the number of thefts of vehicles with no keys.

While the Covid pandemic and subsequent national lockdowns saw a drop in car crime, since the end of restrictions, the number of drive-offs has risen sharply again.

The high-tech key fobs on a keyless car use a transmitter to unlock and start the vehicle, rather than a physical key, so it can be easy for thieves to use technology to ‘tap into’ the key’s signal, copy it and use it to their advantage. This practice, known as a relay attack, is responsible for a growing number of car thefts.

A relay attack involves two criminals with clever – but cheap and easily available – electronic devices. One thief lurks outside your home or office to ‘steal’ the unlock signal from your key while you’re inside. He or she transfers it to another thief with a similar device next to the car, relaying the key’s signal to unlock and start the car. The theft can take place in minutes, with the car in your driveway, with you being completely unaware of what’s going on.

Nearly 50,000 vehicles were stolen in the UK in 2021, according to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) and thousands of these were attributed to keyless car thefts. Keyless technology used to be reserved for more expensive, higher end cars but are becoming more commonplace across all models.

That means that the majority of luxury, highly desirable models are likely to have keyless entry and go… and they are exactly the ones that are featuring on car gangs’ shopping lists.

It’s worrying and distressful for owners and is also a great expense for the motor industry generally, including vehicle leasing companies and insurance organisations.

For a vehicle provider such as Tusker, the award-winning company car and salary sacrifice scheme organisation, car theft prevention is paramount as insurance implications can affect them as much as the vehicle user. The company is urging its customers to be vigilant to the keyless entry threat and to take steps to help lock it out for good.

Keyless entry relay theft | The Car Expert
Source: PA Media

So what can you do to prevent it?

Keep your distance: When you’re not using them, store your keys away from the car, and well inside your house, away from doors and windows. That will make it harder for thieves to identify and pick up the device’s signal.

Block buster: Putting your keys in a biscuit tin or similar container that blocks the signal from seeking devices can work and there are specialist items you can buy, such as a Faraday pouch, which will do the job. The fridge can have a similar effect and putting your keys in the microwave oven has also been suggested, but don’t cook them by accident!

Switch off: Some key fobs can be temporarily disarmed when not in use. The car’s manual will explain how, or the dealer should be able to help.

Post haste: Locking your car away in the garage overnight is a top way to protect your asset, but if you can’t do that, physical deterrents such as a post or bollard, professionally fitted across the exit of your driveway, will go a long way towards putting would-be crooks off.

Doubling up: If you own two cars, and one of them needs keys to open it, park that one behind the keyless model.

Lock and go: A visual steering wheel lock, a wheel clamp over one of the car’s wheels or a security device that protects the vehicle’s pedals are all useful ideas in the fight against crime.

Make tracks: Most cars have alarms and immobilisers fitted now but these can be overcome. It’s worth considering a tracking device to make things easier for the police if your pride and joy does go missing.

“We supply great cars to our customers and we want them to stay with their rightful keepers so we’re asking all our clients, big and small, to do everything they can to help reduce this worrying rise in car theft,” says Paul Gilshan, CEO of Tusker.

“Why should someone else enjoy the car that you or I have worked hard to achieve, so let’s slam the door firmly in the face of car thieves – and lock it for good.”

Tom Johnston
Tom Johnstonhttp://johnstonmedia.com/
Tom Johnston was the first-ever reporter on national motoring magazine Auto Express. He went on to become that magazine’s News Editor and Assistant Editor, and has also been Motoring Correspondent for the Daily Star and contributor to the Daily and Sunday Express. Today, as a freelance writer, content creator and copy editor, Tom works with exciting and interesting websites and magazines on varied projects.