What is the ‘relay’ car theft technique and how can you avoid it?
Thieves are harnessing sophisticated technology to hack into your car’s computer, meaning they don’t even need a key-fob to start the vehicle and can drive it away in a matter of minutes.
In fact, 96% of motorists are at risk of having their car stolen by criminals using the latest theft technique - known as a relay attack - according to new figures from Tracker.
The most at-risk are cars that use keyless fobs, as well as ‘connected cars’. In other words those that use internet to access maps, travel info and music – basically anything with an internet-enabled infotainment system.
How does a relay attack work?
A relay attack usually involves two people working together. One stands by the targeted vehicle, while the other stands near the house with a device that can pick up a signal from the key fob. What’s more, some devices can pick up a signal from over 100 metres away.
The device then relays the key fob’s signal directly to the car, allowing the thieves to get in and drive away immediately. Researchers for Germany’s ADAC discovered that some brands are more at risk than others, with BMW and Peugeot systems being particularly easy to hack.
But the team also managed to unlock a Toyota Prius, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf, showing that no one particular manufacturer is immune to this new kind of crime. The video above shows examples of thieves employing the ‘relay’ technique.
Andy Barrs, head of police liaison at security firm Tracker, said: “As relay attacks become even more prevalent, owners need to protect themselves, particularly since criminal gangs are routinely using relay devices to exploit weaknesses in keyless security systems across a broad range of manufacturers.
“These tools are readily available on the internet for as little as £80 and thefts typically occur in residential areas, where cars are parked relatively close to the house, especially at night.
“It’s worth remembering that technology is just one part of vehicle security and more vigilance needs to be taken across the board; this includes car owners, manufacturers, dealers, insurers and the police.”
What’s being done to stop relay attacks?
The government has released new guidelines for car makers that will soon have to provide more security as cars get ever-more advanced. But it’s not just aimed at reducing theft; it’s part of the Autonomous and Electric Vehicles Bill, which will create a framework to insure autonomous vehicles.
The stricter guidelines also aim to reduce the risk of hackers accessing personal data or, as we get closer and closer to self-driving cars, take over the vehicle and cause accidents.
With autonomous cars purportedly only a few years away, the government wants to make cars as safe and secure as possible in the face of cyber criminals.
Transport minister Lord Callanan said: "We need to make sure that the designs of the vehicles in the first place are completely cyber secure so that people can't break into them, they can't steal them and more importantly they can't hack them to potentially cause accidents."
He added: “The advice would be treat them as you would your computer; be careful who you give access to, don't plug in devices such as USB sticks that you don't know the origin of.”
Top tips on how to avoid vehicle theft and relay attacks
- Block electronic key fob signals: A faraday wallet, sturdy metal box or, as pictured above, even your fridge shields electronic car keys from relay attacks.
- Check it’s locked: Always double check that your car is physically secure and alarmed when using keyless locking systems.
- Keep keys out of sight: Leaving keys in the hallway or on the kitchen worktop means thieves can easily employ the relay technique if it is within proximity or failing that break in and swipe them.
- Add layers of security: Physical barriers can be effective in deterring thieves. Consider adding a crook lock or wheel clamp to your car.
- Install a ‘ghost immobiliser’: For another layer of protection, add a secondary barrier to your car’s factory fitted immobiliser by having a unique access code to start your car.
- Invest in a tracking device: A tracking device won’t stop your vehicle being stolen, but it significantly increases chances of police recovering and returning it.
“It’s clear from our survey that many people are unintentionally leaving themselves vulnerable to these kinds of attack, by putting their keys in easy reach of relay devices.” said Andy Barrs, head of police liaison at Tracker.
Further research by Tracker revealed that 50% of those surveyed leave their keys either in the hallway of their house or a key pot elsewhere. Only 4% use a metal container to ensure their car is protected from a relay attack.