Just the other week, three neighbors down the street mysteriously had their cars broken into. With no signs of forced entry, the police weren’t able to determine how this trio of brand new vehicles were broken into. No scratches, fingerprints, alarms, jimmied locks, broken glass, or witnesses, just a series of break-ins and some missing valuables. Perplexed and frustrated, my neighbors were curious as to why I was asking about the keyless entry systems on their vehicles. I hastily explained to them that they were likely hacked by tech thieves, citing a recent report by Edmunds that warns that “the hacking of keyless-entry systems is so new that there isn’t yet any reliable data on how often it is occurring.”
Carol Kaplan, director of public affairs at the National Crime Insurance Bureau, says this stealthy form of automotive breaking and entering makes for a troubling scenario for both victims and investigators, as evidence often remains minimal at best. “It’s very hard to prove that a car has been broken into by using this method,” she explains. “There’s no evidence left behind, no broken glass or scratches on your car. All you know is that you come back, and your stuff is gone.”
Crime reports by The New York Times indicate that while car thieves have been breaking into and stealing vehicles with the help of handheld transmitter electronic gadgets and OBD port jumpers for over a decade now, modern day criminals are now utilizing laptops more than ever before. Once equipped with a radio transmitter, the unique code emitted from a car’s key fob gets overpowered by “brute force,” as the computer cycles through millions of combinations in a database until the right one pops up.
The New York Times’ report also speaks of one Boris Danev, founder of 3db Technologies, a security company based in Switzerland. Daney claims that many thieves can also get into cars using a relatively simple and inexpensive device called a power amplifier. When a car owner walks up to their keyless entry-equipped automobile and reaches for the door handle, the car sends a signal out to their key in order to allow easy access, and when the key responds from within a few feet, the door unlocks. By amplifying the distance that the vehicle can search for a fob, thieves can replicate a key that’s hanging on a hook inside someone’s house, thus disarming the alarm and the starter kill switch all at once, and embedding this data in a blank key instead.
These amplifiers are easily obtainable, costing as little as $17 online, and while Danev says his company is in talks with several automakers about developing a computer chip that can tell how far a key is from a vehicle, we are still a ways away from seeing this technology in practice. So until then, drivers are left to their own devices, and while key fob amplifiers aren’t the only way thieves are getting into cars nowadays, Daney says that there is one unorthodox fix that almost always works. “Put your keys in the freezer,” he says. “[A refrigerator] acts as a Faraday Cage, and won’t allow a signal to get in or out.”
The only downside to this move is that storing key fobs in the refrigerator or freezer means that the lithium batteries could run out of juice faster, especially since standards set by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association warn that lithium batteries are not meant to be stored below 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
But chilling one’s keys overnight isn’t always a guaranteed fix either, and back in 2011, Edmunds highlighted how a trio of researchers were able to demonstrate how vulnerabilities within keyless-entry systems could literally open doors to thieves. According to the report, a Swiss technology and engineering university “presented a paper at a security conference that described a method for defeating the keyless systems in 10 vehicle models from eight different makers.”
During the presentation, tech heads were not only able to unlock doors, but managed to drive vehicles away as well, even when the smart keys were no longer nearby. One of the researchers, Aurélien Francillon, explained how this was possible. “Cars will never stop the engine if the key is not detected anymore,” he says. “They will [only] show a warning on the dashboard or they will emit a warning sound.”
The notion of thieves having the freedom to easily override keyless-entry systems is not something that the auto industry has been overly keen on discussing in the past, even though everyone knows it must be addressed sooner than later. Since modern keyless-entry systems don’t normally gauge the distance between a key and a car, measuring the distance would require manufacturers to switch to a different radio technology entirely called Ultra Wide Band (UWB) 9. Experts also say that manufacturers would need to make cryptography more of a focus point, as well engine immobilizer alternatives.
As for car owners who want to protect themselves against keyless-entry hacks, there are quite a few precautions drivers can still take to better secure their automobiles. Keeping keys in a safe, or carrying them in a heavily lined wallet or purse have been known to work, with key-holder products like the Fob Guard pouch and cases or wallets by Silent Pocket serving as prime examples of aftermarket Faraday cages.
So in a world gone mad with tech risks, how do you combat thieves like these especially if you’re not convinced that signal blockers/Faraday cages work well? The cyber hackers of the future will more than likely prefer a key fob code over a crowbar, and as wireless gadgetry and computer dependence becomes even more of a crucial component in cars, vehicle owners have to take things into their own hands by going back to the basics.
Parking your car in a locked garage or in a well-lit place with obvious camera surveillance should always be the first step toward crime prevention. Remember, these guys aren’t out committing strong armed robberies at gunpoint. They want to go undetected and avoid confrontation, so by putting them in the limelight and making accessing your ride more difficult, you can deter them from ever attempting a break-in.
Another smart move is opting for a secondary car alarm, like a 2-way system from Viper that features 120dB of ear-splitting sounds, anti-carjacking tech, engine starter kill switches, 1,500 feet of range, and shock sensors. This way, even if the thieves are able to get past your key fob’s security code, they will have a clone-safe, anti-code-grabbing watchdog to tangle with once the door is opened.
Other moves that will make thieves even more uncomfortable about the idea of approaching your ride is the old baby monitor trick, where you place the camera portion on the dash and hook it into a wireless power pack so the batteries last through the night. This is a very inexpensive and effective way of deterring crime, so if you’re a parent and don’t know what to do with that old monitor, put it on your dash and make sure the volume setting is up so if someone gets inside you will wake up.
As far as grand theft auto goes, opting for tried and true, non-tech methods are always a good place to start, because steering clubs and wheel boots will always be a pain in the ass to remove. The more obvious it is that you are on the defensive, the better your chances are of crooks moving on to easier hunting grounds. So remember, even if you have the latest and greatest keyless entry security system, hackers are already looking for ways to get around it, and by following our cheat sheet on ways to deter car thieves, you and your ride can remain unscathed by this automotive menace.