Car security: how to keep your car safe
Car theft is rising and criminals are using high-tech equipment to steal them, but there’s plenty you can do to deter them...
Car thefts are increasing every year, and a large proportion of those taken are new and high-end models that ought to be protected by sophisticated electronic equipment.
With cars getting smarter at an astonishing pace, the ‘connected car’ of the future will become a reality far sooner than you might think. In fact, a lot of the technology is already available in some form or another. For example, even many entry-level cars now come with Bluetooth and keyless entry. All this clever technology isn't necessarily very secure, though.
A report by the German General Automobile Club suggests that some of the best-selling new cars in the UK – including the Ford Fiesta, Nissan Qashqai and Volkswagen Golf – can be stolen using what's called a 'relay attack'. Thieves relay the signal from your car keys through a transmitter and use that to unlock the car. In fact, when the club tested 237 keyless cars, it found that 230 of them could be easily accessed using a relay attack.
In response, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has said that the industry is taking vehicle crime "extremely seriously".
Chief Executive Mike Hawes said: "New cars are more secure than ever, and the latest technology has helped bring down theft dramatically with, on average, less than 0.3% of the cars on our roads stolen. Criminals will always look for new ways to steal cars. It’s an ongoing battle and why manufacturers continue to invest billions in ever more sophisticated security features."
So, how does a relay attack work and what can you do to prevent it? Below and over the next few pages, we'll explain all.
How do thieves steal cars without the keys?
Relay theft usually involves two people working together using transmitters that can be bought online for around £100. These boxes capture the signals emitted by certain key fobs.
One person waves a relay box around outside the car owner’s front door to grab the signal from a key that could have been left on a hallway table. This is passed on to the second person, who stands next to the car with another relay box, which receives the signal and uses it to unlock the car. The thieves can then simply drive the car away.
Thieves can also use even cheaper gadgets to steal cars. With an interceptor costing just £30, a thief can stand near your car while you lock it and record the code sent out by the key. The equipment then calculates the unlocking code for your car and allows them to gain access to it and drive off.
The good news is there are some measures you can take to minimise the risk of your car getting hacked.
How to protect your car
1. Check for recalls
The first thing to do is make sure you’re aware of any recalls that are outstanding for your car. Manufacturers take car security seriously and aim to make sure that all the software in each model is as safe as possible. Software updates are common and can be performed by your local dealership or, in some cases, wirelessly over the internet.
2. Keep your keys safe at home
When it comes to deterring the most sophisticated thieves, the police warn against leaving car keys in hallways or near your front door, where their access signals could be captured. You could even put them in a metal box or safe overnight.
3. Lock the doors manually
You can prevent thieves from cloning your key’s wireless signal by locking your car doors manually with the key.
4. Reset passwords
Many new cars can connect to the internet or be controlled by a smartphone app. If your car has this functionality, make sure you change the default password and never keep the car’s wireless access codes in the car.
5. Get a tracker
If you own a valuable car, you might want to invest in a car tracker to alert you if someone tries to move it. The tracker’s combination of GPS and radio signals tell you your car’s exact location at all times, so you’ll know when it’s being driven by someone else. If it’s stolen, the police should be able to recover it.
6. Fit a steering lock
A steering wheel lock is an old-fashioned solution, and although it won’t provide 100% protection, it will put off opportunist thieves and slow down anyone attempting to steal your car.
7. Be careful with keys
Never leave your car unlocked with the key in the ignition, and never leave it with the engine running. It sounds obvious, but it can be tempting to leave the keys in your car while you pay for petrol, or to leave it unlocked with the engine running on your drive while its windows are de-misting.
8. Park in a secure place
Keeping your car in a locked garage not only means that it’s out of sight, but also adds an extra layer of complexity that thieves need to overcome before driving off in it.
9. Hide valuables
Don’t leave anything of value in your car. Keep your car tidy and make sure you take valuables and items with personal information with you when you leave the car to make your car as unappealing as possible to opportunistic thieves.
10. Go high-tech
With the number of cars being stolen using relay theft on the rise, savvy drivers can use technology to hide their keys out of reach of thieves. Special pouches, called Faraday bags, can block the signal from your key, meaning thieves can't use it against you.
For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here
Best hybrid cars 2023
Everyone from Toyota to Porsche sells hybrids these days, but which models are best and which should you avoid? Here's our list of the top 10 hybrid cars
Volkswagen ID Buzz long-term test
A less than cracking time with the VW ID Buzz leaves a chip on our windscreen