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Surge in car thefts amid keyless security fears

Date: 18 May 2018   |   Author: Sean Keywood

Tightened car security standards could help combat a rise in thefts. Sean Keywood reports.

The number of cars stolen in England and Wales has shot up dramatically, amid concerns about vulnerabilities associated with keyless entry systems.

According to a report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of thefts in 2017 increased by 57%, from 57,000 to 89,000.

The figures were revealed in the same week that it was announced car security standards are to be updated to address the problem of keyless entry-related thefts.

The increase reported by the ONS formed part of an overall 17% increase in vehicle-related theft, with the other constituent category of thefts from vehicles reported to be static.

The data comes from the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW), and according to the ONS is supported by police-recorded crime figures, suggesting there had been a genuine increase, although the police recorded increase of car thefts was much lower, at 19%.

The ONS report added that the rises were relatively small in the context of the longer-term reduction in these offences, where vehicle-related theft according to the CSEW has fallen by 78% since the year ending December 1995 and police-recorded vehicle offences have decreased by 41% since the year ending March 2007.

However, RAC spokesman Simon Williams said the increase is a serious matter. "While we know that the picture is an uneven one across the country, the fact that 32,000 more people were victims of car theft last year compared to 2016 is nothing short of shocking.

"The increase can probably be put down at least in part to the rise of more digitally-savvy criminals who try to exploit vulnerabilities in modern car security systems - although we know manufacturers will do all they can to keep their vehicles secure," he continued.

Williams added that there are steps motorists can take to improve security. "There's a lot drivers can do to reduce the chances of being a victim of this sort of crime - from always parking in well-lit, public places and making sure their vehicle's software is up to date, right through to installing 'low tech' equipment like steering wheel locks that could be enough to deter thieves," he said.

According to motor industry body Thatcham Research, the New Vehicle Security Assessment (NVSA) programme, through which all new cars are assessed as part of the determination of their insurance groups, will be updated in 2019 with new criteria designed to shut down the keyless entry vulnerability, while anticipating other potential methods of digital and cybertheft.

Thatcham's chief technical officer, Richard Billyeald, said, "Car crime is on the increase, with intelligence suggesting that electronic compromise is a factor in as many as one in four vehicle thefts.

"In the 1990s, the NVSA effectively brought an end to a car-crime epidemic by introducing alarms and double-locking door functions, amongst other measures.

"In the same way, collaborative and concerted action from Thatcham Research, carmakers, police and insurers will close the digital vulnerabilities exploited by today's criminal gangs."

Thatcham says it has identified vulnerabilities in on-board electronic systems and criteria covering these areas will be included in the new standards. According to Thatcham, there are three main digital theft techniques currently being used.

Firstly, there is the relay attack, which involves a criminal holding a device up against the front wall or porch of a home, searching for a signal from a keyless fob.The device then relays the key's signal to an accomplice, who is holding another device against the car door, effectively fooling the car into believing the owner is approaching with their key, so the door opens, before a second relay allows the car to start. 

The second technique, known as jamming, sees the criminal hiding a signal blocking device in a residential street or car park, preventing the locking signal from standard remote fobs from reaching the car, before returning to the location and testing all the car doors within range of the device.

This can be prevented by drivers checking for visual confirmation that the car has locked successfully, such as flashing indicators or folding wing mirrors.

The third technique, the on-board diagnostic hack, involves criminals exploiting a system allowing garages to programme new keys, and can be used in conjunction with jamming.