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Criminals are using a new $1,600 car theft device disguised as a cell phone or Bluetooth speaker. It easily hacks into cars in seconds. It’s the latest tool to thwart automakers’ best efforts at security. With these devices, car thieves can easily access a vehicle’s network bus. It gives commands, and the car is gone in 90 seconds. 

How do thieves use these devices for car theft?

stolen car
A stripped and abandoned stolen car | Jerry Cleveland/The Denver Post via Getty

Hacked locks and immobilizers make for easy pickings. Once a hack of a particular type of car is successful, thieves focus on it. As a result, police see spikes in thefts of that make and model

“Typically, each vehicle brand will have a different flavor network on the car. Not massively different, but a little, with different components on the cars that talk in slightly different ways,” security expert Ken Munro told The Times. “So each attack is customized to the particular vehicle. What we are seeing is that someone finds a weakness in x brand and x vehicle, recognized it, ‘productized’ it, and then sold it. Then, all of a sudden, you see a spike in thefts of a particular type of vehicle.”

Do car thieves still need a key?

stolen car
A damaged and stripped stolen car | Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty

Where relay devices were the standard for car theft, thieves no longer need a key or key signal. Now, car theft is done electronically. And because the device looks like something else, if the police pull thieves over, it’s undetectable, helping criminals avoid suspicion.

In some cases, accessing the car’s electronics system requires thieves to remove the front bumper cover. Some vehicle owners have reported finding their bumper covers partially or entirely removed, indicating the car is a target. If that has happened to you, now you know why.

“Both car parts and vehicles themselves are in extremely high demand, and it’s likely these are being shipped abroad or sold to make a profit,” says Alex Borgnis, the underwriting director for General Insurance of London. “I’d encourage drivers to think about steps they can take to mitigate the risks. Simply using a steering wheel lock or wheel clamp can help deter thieves.”

What can you do to make your vehicle less desirable?

Specific Lexus models have seen significant increases in car theft in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“We have been monitoring keyless means of theft for some time now, alongside our industry colleagues,” a Toyota and Lexus spokesman told The Times. “Unfortunately, while in general vehicle-related crime has subsided in recent years, criminals haven’t stopped committing crimes.”

Tracking devices like LoJack and even the much cheaper Apple AirTag can help thwart car theft. But steering wheel locks also provide an affordable deterrent for thieves, who typically target the easiest and quickest cars to steal.

The proof of steering wheel locks’ low price is that some police departments provide them free of charge to Hyundai and Kia owners, experiencing a rash of thefts nationwide. Now, some insurance companies refuse to cover those two brands. 


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