Car thieves are getting smarter, and you need to do something about it

We speak to a former Detective Chief Superintendent about how today’s highly organised car thieves are using technology to take your motor

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We’ve all seen it in the movies. A furtive figure sidles up to a parked car on a dark night, pulls a long metal tool from within his jacket, and slides it down the window. The door pops open and he’s in. He knocks the cowling from beneath the steering column and touches two wires together. The engine roars and away he goes, off into the darkness. Probably with a cool soundtrack playing.

But in real life, that doesn’t happen much anymore. Car security in the 2020s is a lot more sophisticated, but that’s meant that car thieves are much cleverer. Your car is still at risk, even if it’s got all the latest fancy tech on it. In fact, maybe more so.

The changing nature of car theft

Clive Wain is the head of police liaison for Tracker, one of the UK’s leading vehicle tracking services. Before joining the company he spent 30 years in the police force, but even he was shocked when he arrived in his new job and discovered how sophisticated and high tech car thieves have become.

“It was a few years since I worked in that area and I was very, very surprised at the level of sophistication and organised criminality now involved in vehicle theft,” he says. “When I was dealing with burglaries and vehicle theft back in 2005 to 2007, we got a wave of house burglaries, where car keys were stolen and vehicles taken, predominantly by local prolific offenders rather than more organised criminals.”

Clive Wain, Tracker's head of police liaison

Clive Wain, Tracker's head of police liaison

So what’s changed since then? Well, for one thing, car theft has been taken less seriously by both police and the courts.

“When manufacturers started to put decent immobilisers in cars, we saw a significant reduction in UK vehicle theft for a number of years,” Clive explains. “There’s been a perception, both in policing and the judiciary, that it’s no longer a major problem.”

That’s also been reflected in court sentences, which haven’t exactly been strong on car crime. As a result, incidences have shot up. Home Office stats in January this year show that vehicle theft in England and Wales has risen by 52% in the last six years, while data obtained from all UK police forces by RAC Insurance shows an increase of 56% over four years.

This all means that there’s now a renewed focus on vehicle crime. It’s a major interest for organised crime groups; stolen cars are sold overseas, cloned and resold in the UK or taken to chop shops and dismantled for parts. Sometimes they’re just stolen to carry out another crime, from shootings to cash machine theft.

What cars are particularly at risk of being nicked?

Clive says Tracker’s own data shows a top 10 composed entirely of Land Rovers, BMWs and Mercs, although that reflects the higher-end nature of the firm’s clients. National data on stolen cars largely reflects vehicle sales, which means Ford, Volkswagen, Audi and Toyota are particularly at risk. Performance cars from those brands prove particularly attractive, which is bad news if you’ve got, say, a Focus ST.

If you own one of these, you might want to invest in some physical security devices as well as a Tracker

If you own one of these, you might want to invest in some physical security devices as well as a Tracker

Paradoxically, while developments in vehicle security technology have made it harder for the odd low-tech chancer to pinch your motor, they’ve actually made it easier for those that know what they’re doing.

“Arguably, vehicles are easier to steal now than they've ever been for people with the right knowledge and technology,” Clive says. “While manufacturers have done their best to put decent immobilisers in vehicles, the main focus seems to be on passenger luxury and comfort rather than security.

“Vehicles have become more luxurious, with more ease of access and starting, but there has been a developing reverse technology through organised criminals who have found a way around many of those security measures.”

So how do they steal them?

What all this means is that thieves can take your car without needing the keys; no more fishing through the letterbox with a long hook. Many modern vehicles have keyless entry and start, meaning you don’t need to plug a key into the door or ignition to drive away; you just need the signal from the fob. When you touch the handle of your car, it sends out a signal to look for the key, normally within a metre or two. Thieves can get around this by using relay extenders to broadcast that signal further, so that it reaches the key fob inside your house, which then beams confirmation back to the car, letting the thief unlock it, start the engine and drive away.

“Our data shows, quite alarmingly, that 92% of the cars that were recovered by Tracker last year were taken without the keys being present, with some form of electronic compromise,” Clive says. “This is a major problem.”

“There are also a number of devices out there that can be used to clone an owner’s car keys, and many are legitimately available online. There’s also diagnostic equipment that garages have legitimately to check for faults on your vehicle, and unscrupulous individuals will buy them online. Once they’ve got entry to your vehicle, they plug into the OBD port, download the car’s data into a donor key and have a spare key for the car.”

So what can I do to stop someone nicking my car?

Well, there are two basic steps, both digital and analogue. When it comes to the technological, and the risk of someone swiping your smart key signal, just keep the keys in a metal box when you’re at home. A biscuit tin or a microwave would do, although if you opt for the latter, remember to take them out before cooking your breakfast. You can also order a Faraday bag online, which will block external signals, but make sure you get a reputable one as some cheaper ones don’t work.

The other approach is to take it back to the old school. “There’s a real pressing need for us to go back to physical security measures,” Clive says. “Things like steering locks, wheel clamps, driveway posts, CCTV; all really important. None of those measures will ultimately stop someone from stealing a vehicle, but it does make life a lot more difficult and often offenders will move on to a different target.

“Some of the broader common sense advice will be things like making sure your car’s not an easy target. Always make sure it's locked securely, find the right place to park that’s well lit, and consider the security of the vehicle when you purchase. Make sure it has a good quality immobiliser and a Thatcham-certified alarm.”

If the worst does happen and your car is pinched, if your car is fitted with a tracking device then there’s a good chance you’ll get it back. Tracker is the only tracking company offering vehicle tracking systems supported nationwide by the UK police, and 2,000 police cars around the country are fitted with equipment to detect Tracker-enabled vehicles. Oh, and every police helicopter too.

“Data from UK policing shows that 55% of all vehicles that get stolen, that don't have some form of tracking unit fitted, are never seen again,” Clive says. “But because of the way we operate with UK police, because of the technology that we have, Tracker consistently recovers 95% of all vehicles that are stolen, and 80% of those are recovered intact within the first 24 hours.”

One of the reasons that Tracker is at the forefront of the vehicle tracking market is because of the unique relationship that they have with the police, as well as the unique technology it uses. “Unlike other tracking companies in the UK, we’ve got a formal relationship with UK policing – hence my role – and in part that’s why we’ve got such a good recovery rate,” says Clive.

“There’s a misconception that a tracker is a tracker,” Clive says. “But that’s not the case. All the tracking companies in the UK use either GPS or GSM, which is good, but susceptible to jamming and won’t provide a signal through shipping containers, underground car parks etc. We utilise GPS and GSM, but we also use VHF long-range radio frequency. VHF is not a new technology, we’ve had it for many years and are the only tracking company in the UK with the licence to use it. VHF will provide a signal from all those locations that a GPS signal is typically lost and it’s extremely difficult to jam. The police use our VHF technology in their cars and helicopters to track live, enabling them to have pinpoint precision when recovering a stolen vehicle.”

What measures do you take to stop your car being taken? Comment below!

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Comments (15)

  • I don't think that the thieves would want a base model Sandero with no air conditioning...

      23 days ago
  • I've heard about this from an Abarth group, many 595 owners are investing in ODB locks to prevent key cloning.

      23 days ago
  • just steal cop cars. then they cant chase you, you get a free car and you say ACAB in a creative way

      21 days ago
  • Don't really have to worry about this, as none of my cars have keyless entry...

      22 days ago
  • It's a strange world where manufacturers are racing for keyless tech, smart locks from your phone etc. When at the same time, it's making the situation easier for criminals. If they know what they're doing, they can use one of those relay machines and get a car off your household in pretty much 30 seconds.

    One thing I would stress is to invest in a decent tracker. One that can't be disabled.

      23 days ago