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Hot Wiring Cars to Steal? Nah Now There’s ‘Electronic Compromise Theft’ and It’s Ramping up Quickly

Over one million cars were stolen last year. Even with expanding electronic security measures from all manufacturers, car thieves are using "electronic compromise theft" to hack into even Teslas, one of the most difficult vehicles to hack.

All over the car theft world, thieves are poking and prodding infotainment systems in cars to find a way in. When they do, and they always seem to, they run through all of the functions to determine the best way to get around the security features so they can remotely start the car, unlock the doors, slide in, and drive away—no muss, fuss, hot wiring, or key; simple as can be.

Auto theft once dropped, thanks to immobilizer devices in keys and the software inside the cars. Bloomberg says they hit bottom in about 2014. But now, as more hackers and thieves can share their knowledge and new devices on eBay and other sources streamline theft, the instances of car theft are rising and doing so quickly. 

How does electronic compromise theft work?

Electronic car hacking instructional from the U.S. Consumer Watchdog group
Electronic car hacking explained by the U.S. Consumer Watchdog group | MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty

Last year, over one million cars were stolen. It’s called “electronic compromise theft,” and it takes various forms. Right now, removing a headlight to tie into the car’s electronics is one way they hack in. They use a device to unlock the doors and start the engine. Another way is done through signals sent from key fobs. Then, by blocking the vehicle’s GPS, there is no way to track or find it.

For hackers and thieves, Tesla EV systems are especially hard to break into. So that makes it especially attractive for serious hackers looking to show off their prowess. For some, it is just sport. And for others, we know it’s the pot of gold at the end of the stolen car rainbow. 

According to Bloomberg, a large ring of car thieves were caught recently. Spanning France, Latvia, and Spain, they were able to steal cars through their knowledge of electronic vehicle systems. In the UK, where car theft went up 19% just last year, it wants to ban the sale and possession of hacking equipment of all sorts. 

How do automakers stop electronic compromise theft?

The 2023 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 driving down the road
2023 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 392 | Jeep

The concerns over electronic compromise theft came to a head when researchers were able to remotely hijack a Jeep in an arrangement with the driver. This was back in 2015. But remember, the new 2015 Jeep’s electronics were already two to three years old due to development lead times. But actually, being able to hijack a stolen car while being driven should send chills to drivers, insurance companies, and police. 

Now, Tesla even participates in electronic hacking competitions like the one in March in Vancouver. It even gave away a Tesla Model 3 to the winners, Synacktiv. It was able to demonstrate hijacking both security and safety features of a Model 3. And they showed how to do the hijacking while the Tesla is driven. 

What’s a “bug bounty?”

A black 2022 Tesla Model 3 Long Range stretches its legs on a long snowy road.
Model 3 | Tesla

Car Theft Spikes for Specific Vehicles Means Thieves Have a New Tool

Since March, Tesla has developed a patch to fix the vulnerability. The company has had a “bug bounty” program to expose other vulnerabilities for years. And while it continues to be the most challenging vehicle to hack into, hacking companies like Synacktiv still find ways to break into Teslas.