Thieves use different methods to steal cars - from traditional breaking and entering to keyless theft.
These techniques exploit vulnerabilities in the car's technology to steal cars or strip them down for parts. In fact, the demand for car parts meant vehicle thefts increased in 2022. That’s according to stolen vehicle recovery service Tracker.
There are so many ways for thieves to steal cars, so what’s the best method of security to invest in?
What are the main types of car theft?
According to Clive Wain, Head of Police Liaison at Tracker, there are 8 main types of theft:
- Keyless car theft
- Hanoi burglary
- Turbo decoder theft
- Transponder key cloning
- On-board diagnostics compromise
- Electronic control unit replacement
- Car key code grabbing
- GPS jamming device
Here we look at each technique in more detail as well as how you can guard against it.
1. Keyless car theft
Keyless entry car theft - or relay theft - involves 2 offenders who target cars parked near to the owner’s home. They use 2 devices:
- A relay transmitter
- An amplifier
Using these systems in tandem 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's a growing problem.
This type of theft is usually more common in cars. But if your van uses keyless technology it’s worth investing in extra security features to protect against this.
Securing against keyless car theft
If you block the signal from the key, you stand a good chance of protecting your car from keyless car theft:
- Some keyless systems now come with an idle or sleep mode.
- You can store your keys in a metal container, which should block the signal.
- A Faraday pouch provides good protection from keyless car thefts. You should ensure your keys fit into it, though, as some are intended only for credit cards.
2. Hanoi burglary
Hanoi burglaries involve criminals gaining entry to the victim’s home by brute force. Once they're inside, they steal your car keys. This type of theft is most common in Wales, Scotland and the north of England. This kind of theft is called Hanoi after the police initiative created to stop it – Operation Hanoi.
Securing against Hanoi burglary
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.
3. 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.
Turbo decoders can be bought online because locksmiths legitimately use these to gain entry to cars.
Securing against turbo decoder theft
Having multiple levels of security protects against this type of theft, for example:
- Installing an alarm
- Using a steering wheel lock
Immobilisers and tracking system should help, too.
4. Transponder key cloning
The victim’s keys are usually acquired through places such as unscrupulous garages or car washes. Criminals then use a device for cloning car keys.
They copy the unique code from the stolen key onto a blank key, which can be bought online.
The real key is then returned to the owner and the car is usually stolen later using the cloned car key.
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 criminals that use car key cloning act later. So extra layers of security such as steering wheel locks and gearstick locks should keep your car secure.
5. On-board diagnostics (OBD) compromise
The on-board diagnostics system (OBD) contains information on the car’s systems. Usually repair technicians use this device to check the health of the car.
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. They can then create a duplicate key.
Securing against OBD compromise
Multi-layered security should help with this. So then even if the criminals manage to gain entry to the car, steering wheel locks and handbrake locks could be difficult to remove.
6. Electronic control unit (ECU) replacement
The ECU works in a similar way to a laptop or a computer and controls the engine and other functions.
This technology can be hacked by thieves so they can drive the vehicle away.
It’s a time-consuming method of theft, so 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.
7. 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 should help with this. Also, be vigilant of anyone loitering suspiciously in the car park.
8. GPS jamming device
This type of theft targets additional security features as opposed to the car itself.
Often people install a GPS tracking system so their car can be located if it’s stolen.
Criminals 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 don’t face this problem as they use VHF technology as opposed to GPS. This can’t be jammed by criminals.