Car thefts up 49% in five years following advent of keyless-entry technology

Only three cars were impervious to "relay device" attacks

NEW DATA from the Home Office shows 111,999 vehicles were stolen in the UK in the period 2017-18, up 49% in five years, from 75,308 vehicles in 2013-14.

The increase is being put down to the advent and proliferation of “keyless cars” on our roads, which can be started via computer hacking instead of a tradition metal key and ignition switch.

According to recent tests on 237 cars with keyless entry and start systems by German breakdown service ADAC, all but three of the assessed vehicles were found to be susceptible to “relay thefts”, where crooks use relay boxes to trick the car into thinking the device is the real wireless key fob.

The issue affected many mass-market models, too, including some of the UK’s best-selling cars such as the Ford Fiesta, the Volkswagen Golf and the Nissan Qashqai.

Driving first reported about the problem of keyless thefts in 2014, but cars affected at that time were mainly premium vehicles, such as Range Rovers and Audis. Since then, the technology has trickled down to more affordable models; in March last year Cleveland Police in Middlesborough said it had logged the theft of 90 keyless cars in the area over a three month period, with half of the cars being Ford Fiestas.

To combat this trend, the car industry is improving the security of its wireless technology. The latest Jaguar and Land Rover models use a more secure ultra-wide bandwidth (UWB) system, while some car brands such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz are using tech such as motion sensors —  meaning the wireless fob can’t be used to unlock and start a car if it’s stationary.

UWB appears to be a successful solution at present. The three vehicles ADAC found weren’t at risk of relay theft attacks were the pure-electric Jaguar I-Pace, and the latest versions of the Land Rover Discovery and the Range Rover.

The anti-theft credentials of new cars are also set to be more thoroughly assessed in the UK. Vehicle safety and security assessor Thatcham Research this month updated its New Vehicle Security Assessment programme, with the changes designed to “shut down the keyless entry vulnerability, while anticipating other potential methods of digital and cyber-compromise”.

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