This blog has covered an electronic key fob before and that our assumption as consumers is that it is safer than a simple key. The truth is that automakers were actually trying for convenience, not theft resistance. The fact that you can just point the fob at your car and press the button makes it easier to use, especially since you can also usually “pop” your trunk without even taking your hand out of your pocket.
Unfortunately, as safety precautions go, automatic locks can be at best a chink in your armor and at worst, entirely unsafe. This matters not only to the owners of cars but to their designers. This issue isn’t with key fobs that only put out a signal when you push a button, but with the more sophisticated proxemics style of fob that allows you to unlock and start your car as long as you have the fob on your person or in a purse.
The issue is a piece of equipment called a relay box, which is a signal booster available online. You’re fob is essentially “leaking” a little signal continuously, so that if you’re near your car it will allow you to push a button on your car door to unlock it. It’s usually harmlessly since you aren’t near your car when a thief is trying to break in. However, this signal can escape your home through windows and doors though it’s easily blocked by metal among other things.
All that the relay box does is boost the signal. One thief goes near enough to your home to pick up the signal with a relay booster then another thief stands near your car with another relay box. When the second thief pushes the button on your car door he the car will believe it’s you. He can then start the car before driving out of signal range. Some of these relay boxes can even store you signal allow the thief to turn your car off and back on again.
Here’s a link to a video of thieves using this exact process. (https://youtu.be/8pffcngJJq0)
A test by a German company shows that this relay box is amazingly effective and can open 230 out of the 237 car models tested, that’s a success rate of 97% (or a failure rate, depending on your viewpoint). This is highly disconcerting if you have this type of lock.
This particular breed of miscreant is known as a “relay thief.” What’s truly frightening here isn’t that the thieves will simply start your car and go. It’s that if their real target is inside your home, aka you, then your garage door opener is right there in your car.
There are several versions of this car fob hacking. One is to use the fob keys to jam the signal when the driver attempts to lock the car, in the same way, that you might have heard of radio messages or mobile phone calls getting jammed. It’s also possible to though rare to combine jamming with key programming in order to get the car started.
Slightly more advanced is app hacking if your car should be equipped with a cell phone remote unlock/starter. Essentially it means entering the right password either through stealing the details or guessing. This may well be the latest growth area in car crime, who can say?
If you have a proximity key fob it’s a good idea to not store your keys next to the front door in a dish. Keep them further inside your home. It is generally a good idea to keep your car in a garage though keeping it behind a locked gate works relatively well and is a lot cheaper. When leaving your car parked most people know not to leave valuables in plain sight, yet we still do it. In particular, we leave navigation systems and dash cams mounted in plain view. It’s could be worth the effort to store them away each time you exit your car.
It’s advisable to use a steering lock, though it tends to be one of those things that drivers receive as a gift and never take out of its box. Procrastination is never a good idea. It’s not that these locks are impossible to beat it’s that there’s probably a car right next to yours without one and that makes these sorts of physical deterrents nearly 100% effective.
The jury is out whether car alarms actually work or if they just slow the criminals down a bit and annoy the neighbors and passers-by. Still, it’s another security device you can use. And if you’ve got something to lose chances are you’ll spend money to prevent it.