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11 May 2021
Jamie Gibbs Alice Campion

Eight types of vehicle theft and how to prevent them


breaking into a car

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

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Stolen vehicle recovery service Tracker recovered over £9 million worth of stolen vehicles 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? This should clarify things a little.

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Types of theft

According to Clive Wain, spokesman for Tracker vehicle recovery service, there are eight main types of theft:

  • Hanoi-style burglary

  • Access by turbo decoder

  • Transponder key cloning

  • On board diagnostics (OBD) compromise

  • Electronic control unit (ECU) replacement

  • Key code grabbing

  • GPS Jamming device


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 will stop criminals at the first hurdle.

As a secondary measure, keep your keys in a secure place e.g in a locked drawer.

Read more: 10 most stolen vehicles


Turbo decoder theft

Offenders use the turbo decoder to target manual door locks.

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

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

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


Securing against turbo decoder theft

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

Read more: Beat car thieves: 10 insider tips


Relay attack 

This 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 attack involves two offenders who target vehicles 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 vehicle can be unlocked, started and driven away. 


Securing against relay attacks 

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 relay attacks. You should ensure your keys fit into it though as some are only intended for credit cards.

Check prices for Faraday pouches on Amazon

Read more: Is your car at risk of keyless theft?


Transponder key cloning 

The victim’s keys are usually acquired through legitimate means e.g unscrupulous garages or car washes. 

A cloning device is used to capture the unique coding on a key, then reproduced on a blank key. 

The blank keys are available to buy online, and mostly used by locksmiths with another machine to reproduce the key.

The real key is then returned to the owner and the vehicle 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, like steering wheel and gearstick locks should keep your vehicle 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 a device like this can gain information on the vehicle.  

After gaining access by using a turbo decoder or other method, the device is placed into the OBD port. This 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, like the transponder key cloning method.  


Securing against OBD compromise

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

Adding a vehicle tracking system, although it won’t stop your car being stolen, will help 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 like the 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 on your CCTV to ensure it’s working.


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 vehicle. 

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


Securing against key code grabbing

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

And although obvious, you should always ensure your car is locked before you leave.


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 vehicle 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

Vehicles 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. 


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