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Types of vehicle and car theft and how to prevent them

Criminals are keeping up with technological advances in vehicles with new methods of theft. Here are our tips to keep your car secure.

Person breaking into a car

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Stolen vehicle recovery service Tracker recovered more than £9m-worth of stolen cars in 2020.

Often thieves will use a combination of methods to steal a car, from traditional breaking and entering to exploiting vulnerabilities in the car's technology.

But with so many different ways that thieves can access your car, what’s the best method of security to invest in?


Types of car theft

According to Clive Wain, of Tracker, there are eight main types of theft:

  • Relay theft
  • Hanoi-style burglary
  • Turbo decoder theft
  • Transponder key cloning
  • On-board diagnostics compromise
  • Electronic control unit replacement
  • Car key code grabbing
  • GPS jamming device


Relay theft 

Keyless entry car theft or relay theft is usually more prevalent in cars, but if your van uses keyless technology it’s worth investing in extra security features to protect against this.

A relay theft involves two offenders who target cars parked near to the owner’s home. Two devices are used – a relay transmitter and an amplifier.

Using these two systems in conjunction tricks the car into thinking the key is closer than it is, which means the car can be unlocked, started and driven away.

Criminals can buy the equipment they need for this for as little as £100, which perhaps explains why it is a growing problem.


Securing against relay theft

If you block the signal from the key, you stand a good chance of protecting your car from this type of theft. 

Some keyless systems now come with an idle or sleep mode. Failing that, storing your keys in a metal container will block the signal.

A Faraday pouch will also provide good protection from keyless car thefts. You should ensure your keys fit into it, though, as some are intended only for credit cards.

Check prices for Faraday pouches on Amazon  


Hanoi-style burglary

This type of theft is most prevalent in the north of England, Wales and Scotland. A criminal will gain entry to the victim’s home by brute force and steal the car keys.

This kind of theft is called Hanoi-style after the police initiative created to stamp it out – Operation Hanoi.


Securing against Hanoi theft

Make sure that any entry to your house is properly locked and secured – this might help to stop criminals at the first hurdle.

As a secondary measure, keep your keys in a secure place, such as a locked drawer.


Turbo decoder theft

This involves the targeting of manual door locks.

Working like a modern skeleton key, as a turbo decoder turns, the spigots align to the shape of the empty keyhole and it reproduces the format of the key.

It’s often used in conjunction with other methods of theft.

Worryingly, turbo decoders can be purchased online because locksmiths legitimately use these to gain entry to cars.


Securing against turbo decoder theft

Multi-layered security will protect against this type of theft. Immobilisers and tracking systems will help, too.


Transponder key cloning

The victim’s keys are usually acquired through places such as unscrupulous garages or car washes.

A cloning device is used to copy the unique coding on a key, then reproduced on a blank key, which can be bought online.

The real key is then returned to the owner and the car stolen later. 


Securing against transponder key cloning

Always check the credentials of your garage, valeting or car washing service before you hand your car over to them.

Most of these criminals act later, so extra layers of security such as steering wheel locks and gearstick locks should keep your car secure.


On-board diagnostics (OBD) compromise 

The on-board diagnostics system (OBD) contains information on the car’s systems. Usually repair technicians use a device to check the health of the car through this.

Unfortunately, criminals with access to this type of device can gain information on the car.  

After gaining access by using a turbo decoder or another method, the device is placed into the OBD port, which is usually located underneath the dashboard.

From here, the criminals can download all the car’s information, including the unique code for the key. A duplicate key is then created, in a similar way to transponder key cloning.


Securing against OBD compromise

Again, multi-layered security will help with this. So then even if the criminals manage to gain entry to the car, steering wheel locks and handbrake locks will be difficult to remove. 

Although adding a vehicle tracking system won’t stop your car being stolen, it will help the authorities to recover it later.


Electronic control unit (ECU) replacement

The electronic control unit works in a similar way to a laptop or a computer and controls the engine and other functions.

Again, this technology can be exploited by thieves, but it’s a time-consuming method of theft. Because of this, criminals tend to target commercial vans which are locked up in storage overnight.

Offenders use a blank ECU, usually picked up from a scrapyard. Combined with another method of entry such as a turbo decoder, thieves can replace the entire ECU.


Securing against ECU replacement

Physical methods of security are advised here. If you’re leaving multiple vehicles overnight, make sure the facility is secure. You should also do regular checks via your CCTV.


Car key code grabbing 

Criminals usually lie in wait at supermarkets or public parking areas and target electronic key fobs. Using an electronic tool, they capture the key code as the victim locks the car.

Once the code is captured, the data can be downloaded onto a blank key.


Securing against car key code grabbing

Physical security such as a steering lock will help with this. Also, be vigilant of anyone loitering suspiciously in the car park.


GPS jamming device

This type of theft targets additional security features as opposed to the car itself.

Often people will install a GPS tracking system so their car can be located if it’s stolen. 

Unfortunately, offenders can use a device to jam the signal of tracking devices at the time of the theft so it can’t be tracked.


Securing against GPS jamming

Cars that have a Tracker system installed won’t face this problem as they use VHF technology as opposed to GPS. This can’t be jammed by criminals.


In summary

Learning about all the ways your car can be stolen can be disheartening.

But taking just a few common-sense steps can reduce the chances of you becoming a victim.

Just by locking your car and keeping your keys secure, you’re reducing the chances of being successfully targeted.

Vetting garages and car washes before you use them, keeping your keys in a Faraday pouch and parking in well-lit areas also help.

So while you can never get the chances of becoming a victim down to zero, there are plenty of straightforward steps to improve your car’s security.

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