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Is your keyless car at risk of theft?

Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

Thieves are going hi-tech and targeting cars with keyless entry.

The number of stolen vehicles increased by 29% between September 2021 and September 2022, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

Separate research by insurance company Aviva found that vehicles with keyless entry and start systems are twice as likely to be stolen as those without. Between August 2020 and August 2022, the insurer noted that customers with keyless entry cars had significantly greater likelihood of making a theft claim than those of non-keyless cars.

Alec Reeder, performance lead at Aviva General Insurance, says: “While vehicle security has developed and improved in many ways, unfortunately criminal activity is evolving too.

“Over the past two years, we’ve found claims for stolen keyless vehicles are twice as likely as those for non-keyless vehicles. While theft claims account for only a small proportion of our vehicle claims overall, we understand that a stolen car can be very distressing for owners.”

How do keyless cars work?

A keyless entry car uses a special key fob that senses when you’re near your car and automatically unlocks the door for you. These systems work using short-range radio waves. Drivers are still given a physical key, but you don’t need to insert it in the door to unlock your car.

Top models like the Hyundai Kona and Lexus NX are keyless. Some keyless cars also have a feature where the key also automatically locks the car when it senses you’re walking away from the car after parking it.

Keyless car theft accounted for 94% of all vehicles recovered by car tracking firm Tracker in 2022, reaching an all-time high.

How do thieves steal keyless cars?

Car thieves steal keyless cards by a process known as ‘relay theft’. This occurs when a device is used to fool the car into thinking the car’s own remote key fob is close by, which unlocks the car and allows the ignition to be started.

All it requires is two small boxes of electronics, which thieves can use to open your car in a couple of minutes. It is called ‘relay theft’ as thieves typically work in pairs.

One holds a transmitter and stands next to the car while the other stands close to the property holding an amplifier. The amplifier can boost the signal from the key and send it to the transmitter. The transmitter essentially becomes a ghost key and tricks the car into thinking the real key is nearby. This then opens the car and allows it to be driven away without causing any damage.

Gus Park, managing director of AA Insurance Services, said: “The key has always been the most vulnerable part of the car when it comes to security, but many are unaware how important it is to protect it.

“Car thieves have gone high-tech and relay theft has been on the rise for some time, yet drivers are still unaware of the risks surrounding keyless entry cars. Keyless entry is becoming more common too with more manufacturers offering the tech on lower specification cars.”

How to protect your keyless car from theft

There are several ways car owners can keep their keyless cars safe:

  • Keep your keys a safe distance from the car

Store your car keys far away from doors and windows at home. This will minimise the chances a thief will be able to find and amplify the key’s signal.

  • Block or turn off the signal

Purchase a ‘faraday pouch’ to keep your car key in. These pouches contain signal-blocking materials that stop your key transmitting its code, preventing crooks from being able to detect and amplify the signal.

You could also check your manual or speak to your dealer to find out if your key can be switched off.

  • Get a steering wheel lock

Drivers could consider using a steering wheel lock, a driveway parking post, or even a wheel clamp.

  • Install a tracker

A tracker device won’t stop your car being stolen – but it will make it easier to find if it is.

  • Get a fob with a motion sensor

The motion sensor detects when the fob has been stationary for a while, which triggers sleep mode. During sleep mode the fob no longer responds to the relay signals, protecting the vehicle from relay attack. Full functionality is restored when the owner moves the key.

Some manufacturers, such as Ford, offer a software update that installs the sleep mode onto a new key.

  • Park your vehicle in a well-lit area

According to the Met Police, vehicles parked in dark and less busy areas are more likely to be broken into and damaged.

It is therefore recommended to park in well-lit and busier areas if you don’t have a private garage or driveway – and when away from home.

Which keyless cars are best… and worst?

Car security experts Thatcham have conducted extensive research around keyless car entry theft.

Researchers found that the BMW X6 M50d, BMW 218i Gran Coupe M Sport, Land Rover Discovery Sport D150, Mini EV, Porsche Taycan, Škoda Superb and Toyota Supra all scored ‘superior’ ratings for all-round security and the presence of a Relay Attack fix.

But ‘poor’ ratings were awarded to the Mazda CX-30, MG HS Excite T-GDI, Subaru Forester e-Boxer XE Premium and Vauxhall Corsa Ultimate Turbo 100. Security engineers were able to access and start these vehicles using relay attack equipment.