It used to be that only luxury models with keyless entry were targeted by tech-savvy car thieves. Now, as crooks realise how easy they are to crack, all vehicles with such systems are at risk — and thefts are rocketing
IT WAS 4.20 on the morning of the general election last month when Robert Grosvenor was woken by his wife with the news that his car was missing from the driveway of their home in Selly Oak, Birmingham. “We checked the CCTV and saw that the car had gone in under a minute,” said the 47-year-old company director. “She asked me if I had left the keys outside.”
But the thieves had not needed the keys. They broke into the Ford Focus using a technique that police say has become all too familiar — but usually in thefts of expensive cars such as BMWs, Audis and Range Rovers.
In recent weeks, though, there has been an increase in the number of mid-range cars that have been stolen using what police describe as the “keyless method”.
The Grosvenors’ video footage shows a hooded thief smashing the driver’s window of the Focus and then leaning in underneath the steering wheel to reach the car’s diagnostic port: a gateway to the vehicle’s electronic systems, which is required by European regulations.
The thief is presumed to have used a small electronic device that he plugged into the diagnostic port, enabling him to program a blank key fob, unlock the doors and — as in most cars with keyless systems — start the engine using a push button.
Police are advising owners to protect their cars with the kind of old-fashioned steering lock last seen in widespread use in the 1980s
“Normally I put the car in the garage but on that night only, I had left it in the driveway, which suggests to me that these criminals have got spotters who are looking for any opportunity,” Grosvenor says. “It was really upsetting. I wasn’t aware of what was going on and that these cars could be taken in seconds.”
His Focus RS, which cost £34,000 in 2010, is one of the more expensive Fords, but owners of cheaper models fitted with keyless systems have also reported thefts, suspected to have been carried out using the same technique.
The problem is affecting Mercedes owners too, according to Thatcham, which tests car security.
The ease with which cars can be driven away is increasing crime and putting pressure on makers to return to traditional keys.
“It’s an epidemic at the moment,” says Richard Coles, who runs the FordSToc.com web forum for Ford owners. “Not a week has gone by in the past six months that we haven’t had a member’s car stolen.”
The Sunday Times has been warning of flaws in keyless systems since 2011. We revealed how car thieves were buying handheld computer devices, programmed in China and eastern Europe and sold online, which hacked into a vehicle’s software and allowed blank key fobs to be programmed.
More manufacturers are removing the protection offered by a traditional key and ignition barrel and replacing them with a keyless system. This uses radio waves to exchange codes between key fob and car so owners do not even have to take the fob out of their pocket to open the door. Once inside, the vehicle can be started with the push of a button.
“It’s an epidemic at the moment. Not a week has gone by in the past six months that we haven’t had a member’s car stolen.” FordSToc.com
The handful of crooks who employed the technique in the early days confined their efforts to pricy models, including top end Audis (such as this example, also captured on CCTV) but in particular Range Rovers, to the extent that insurance costs were affected. Now, as the knowledge has apparently become more widespread, it seems no car with keyless entry is safe.
Police are advising owners to protect their cars with the kind of old-fashioned steering lock last seen in widespread use in the 1980s. Matthew Higginson, sales manager at the steering wheel lock firm Disklok, says demand for the products has soared, first among Range Rover owners and, in recent months, among owners of Fords with keyless systems.
“I was contacted by one owner who said that nine Focuses were stolen over two nights,” he says. “Any car with a keyless system is at risk.”
Police are trying to deal with the problem. Coles says owners of the most expensive Focus models are being stopped by officers checking the car hasn’t been stolen — a move welcomed by contributors to his web forum. In London, the Metropolitan police launched Operation Endeavour in February, under which expensive cars were stopped and drivers’ details checked.
It took thieves less than 60 seconds to steal Robert Grosvenor’s Ford Focus RS
But the low cost of the programming equipment and the ease with which it can be obtained, combined with the increasing popularity of keyless entry, means it’s an uphill struggle. After 20 years of falling car theft figures, some forces are reporting the number is on the rise again. In the 12 months to March this year 22,057 vehicle thefts were reported to the Met, a rise of 6.5% on the previous year.
At the beginning of the year Greater Manchester police warned of an increase in car theft, and in February Humberside police said reports of cars being stolen had almost doubled compared with the previous month.
Ford says it is working on technology for new cars to stop thieves turning off the alarm via the diagnostic port and programming key fobs if the alarm is activated. There will also be more protection for existing vehicles.
“We will be releasing an additional physical layer of security,” Ford said. “It will be available for all vehicles that do not have the new technology.”
The motor industry blames the problem on rules that force them to fit diagnostic ports and to allow third parties access, so franchised dealers don’t have a monopoly on servicing and repairs
The motor industry blames the problem on rules imposed by the European Commission that force them to fit diagnostic ports and to allow third parties access, so franchised dealers don’t have a monopoly on servicing and repairs.
The commission has set up a body called the Forum on Access to Vehicle Information to devise ways of reducing car thefts using the keyless method, but its reports are confidential.
In the meantime, drivers continue to suffer. Tina Fitch, 50, from Essex, was woken up at 4.30am in March 2013 to the sound of her Ford Focus RS being taken from her driveway. Bought after her children had left home, it was the car Fitch had always wanted: painted and trimmed to her specification. Although it was recovered, she says the effects endure.
“I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep since then,” she says. “I’m still terrified of leaving the car outside at night, even though I’ve fitted more security. I’ve got two extra alarms, a steel box that covers the [diagnostic] port, a box that locks the clutch pedal and a Disklok. I never park anywhere without them all fitted.”