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Keyless car theft has been named one of the top factors behind the recent rise in vehicle crime in the UK. But what is keyless car theft, and how can fleet managers prevent it?

The UK is in the midst of a car theft epidemic. According to Home Office data, almost 112,000 vehicles were stolen in the 2017-18 financial year - an increase of almost 50% on just half a decade before.

We’ve written in the past how one of the factors behind this trend is that criminals are becoming more and more sophisticated - mobilising online using messaging apps to steal cars to order, for example.

However, another key driver is the technological sophistication of our cars themselves. I’m talking about keyless entry systems, which have led to the development of a whole new category of car crime: keyless car theft.

Keyless car theft involves bypassing the keyless entry systems of prestige cars to trick them into thinking the key is close by. This allows criminals to gain entry to the vehicle - and drive off - without triggering the alarm. According to the ABI, the trend contributed an 11% increase to insurance claims for car theft between 2017 and 2018 alone.

And it’s not just owners of prestige cars that are affected. Many LCVs are also now fitted with keyless entry systems, putting countless fleets around the country at a much higher risk of theft than ever before.

So what is keyless car theft? And what can the UK’s fleet managers do to prevent it and protect their vehicles from theft?

What is keyless car theft?

In order to carry out keyless car thefts, criminals first need to identify vehicles that are parked sufficiently close to their keyless fobs - normally cars parked on their owners’ drives, where there’s a high likelihood that the fob is right inside.

They then use low-cost devices to pick up and amplify or spoof the signal from the keyless fob, which tricks the car into thinking the key is within a secure range to unlock the doors.

The whole process takes seconds and won’t set off the car alarm, so the thieves could be miles away before they’re even detected - and, if they’re smart, they may also use this window to remove any tracking devices they can find to cover their trail.

What can fleet managers do to prevent keyless car theft?

If you’re a fleet manager with responsibility to protect vehicles with vulnerable keyless entry systems, there are a handful of steps you can take to prevent keyless car theft - as well as options to improve your chances of stolen car recovery after the fact.

Some of these steps, such as those advised by the ABI below, involve the use of extra caution on the part of the driver:

  • Keep keyless fobs in faraday containers or pouches when not in use. These containers are lined with materials that block radio signal, making it impossible for thieves to boost them. (With some systems, it’s possible for drivers simply to turn the keyless functionality on or off using the key. A handful of prestige manufacturers have also introduced an automated “sleep mode”.)
  • Use additional physical security measures such as steering wheel locks and wheel clamps to prevent car theft even where keyless entry systems are compromised.
  • Keep vehicles in secure locations - such as behind locked gates - and keep keyless fobs away from doors and windows.

The challenge here, of course, is that it can be difficult to ensure drivers always exercise this level of caution in a fleet context. It’s not always feasible to use additional security measures or dictate where vehicles can be parked, and human error should also be a consideration.

Can tracking devices be used to prevent keyless car theft?

Finally, fleet managers also have the option to rely on in-car devices and telematics as a way to identify when a keyless car theft has occurred, and then locate and recover the stolen vehicle.

This is a valid option and has been used to great effect in the past, as in a case earlier this year when experts at AX were able to locate, recover and return a stolen BMW less than an hour after it was reported missing.Thought to be the fastest ever recovery of a stolen vehicle in the UK, the success was only possible thanks to a covert tracking device.

However, there are a few important factors fleet managers should consider before investing in telematics as a way to improve their chances of recovering a stolen vehicle.

Firstly, covert tracking devices really do need to be covert. In the incident described above, our investigation revealed the criminals had first driven the car to a discreet location - a quiet country lane - and searched it for tracking devices before taking it to its intended drop-off point.

This is common practice among modern car thieves, who will go to great lengths not only to remove OEM trackers - which normally aren’t hidden - but aftermarket units as well.

Secondly, covert tracking devices aren’t effective unless you also have the resource and capability to monitor, interpret and act on the data they collect. Keyless car thefts may not be noticed or reported for hours after the fact, so your chances of a swift recovery - or recovery at all - may depend on your tracking devices’ ability to alert you to suspicious movement, erratic driving behaviour and even tampering.

Ultimately, keyless car theft reflects the modern car thief at their most technologically sophisticated. In order to stay one step ahead, fleet managers need to be sophisticated too - and that means using in-car devices that can beat them at their own game.


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