Many of us will remember the bad old days when car theft was a common phenomenon. It peaked in the early 1990s and a report from the Office of National Statistics reveals that in 1993, vehicle-owning households had a 1 in 5 chance of being victims of vehicle-related theft - whilst in March 2017 it was 1 in 25.
Before the early 1990s thieves would usually steal a car by hot-wiring it, but the time when that was possible has long gone. Vehicle security measures have improved hugely, making cars more difficult for thieves to break into and start.
In 2013 vehicle theft was at an all-time low of 70,000 down from 620,000 in 1992, because of these developments. One of the key reasons behind this has been the development of the New Vehicle Security Assessment (NVSA) which was first developed by Thatcham Research, the motor insurers' automotive research centre 25 years ago.
The criteria for the assessments are
a) mechanical – how easy is it for the car to be broken into?
b) electronic – how easy is it for the car to be hacked electronically?
c) identification of parts – car parts should have clear and robust marking, hence making them more difficult for thieves to sell on
The results of the assessment form part of a new vehicle's insurance group rating, so this has given manufacturers the incentive to improve vehicle security. 'It's interesting comparing cars of the same make and model in the UK and in Europe,' says Richard Billyeald. 'The British ones tend to have been fitted with far better security measures and this is because of the pressure car companies are under in the UK to get their vehicles into the lower insurance brackets'.
However, it now appears that thieves are catching up by learning how to hack car security technology, with the result that the number of cars stolen is creeping back up again. The the latest figures on vehicle theft released under the Freedom of Information Act shows that there has been a rise of almost 30% since 2014.
Experts believe that part of this increase is down to cars being taken via relay theft.
What is relay theft?
A relatively new development in car technology is 'keyless entry and ignition'. This allows a vehicle to be opened and started without having to operate the key or key fob in the traditional way. Instead it emits a radio signal which will unlock the car automatically as the key-holder approaches; once the driver is seated, the car can be started by pressing an ignition button.
Keyless entry and ignition is currently considered a luxury feature and is only present on 1% (about 350,000) of cars in the UK, offered by brands such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes.
The method which criminals have developed to hack this system is one that is being used by organised gangs – it's not an opportunistic theft. It involves one thief using an electronic device called a 'relay device' and loitering near the front door of the car's owner. Since many of us keep our keys in the hallway, this device is then close enough to pick up the radio signal from the car's key fob.
Their accomplice stands closer to the car, holding another device which picks up the signal from the first one. The vehicle then responds as if that device is the key and unlocks, allowing the thief to gain access and drive it away.
It's a crime that can be carried out both quickly and quietly: watch this real-life relay theft in footage released by the West Midlands Police.
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What if my car is stolen by relay theft?
Sadly, if your car is stolen via relay theft, there isn't much hope of getting it back.
'By the time you open your curtains in the morning and realise your car has been stolen, it will probably have already been shipped off abroad, or more likely taken to a 'chop shop' where it will be broken down into parts which are then sold on,' says Richard Billyeald, Chief Technical Officer at Thatcham Research, the motor insurers' automotive research centre.
You should initially call the police on 101 to report the theft and also contact your insurance company.
'Anyone whose car is stolen via relay theft should make an insurance claim in the usual way,' says Sarah Cordey, spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers. 'Insurers may ask for additional information depending on the nature of the policy and what has happened. The overwhelming majority of claims are paid without any issues.'
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What's being done to prevent relay theft?
Currently the electronic devices used in this form of theft can be purchased by anyone via internet shopping sites. The West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) David Jamieson has written to both Amazon and eBay asking them to block sale of these devices.
Amazon has yet to respond, but eBay is actively working to remove them from their site.
The police have also been asked to do more. When vehicles are stolen the PCC wants the method by which it was taken to be identified. This information will be crucial if experts are to gain a better understanding of car security.
The PCC has also met with car manufacturers to make urge them to work on increasing vehicle security.
Technical experts are hard at work to combat hackers. 'An update of the NVSA criteria is in progress to increase the emphasis on electronic compromise of vehicle security systems in line with the current theft trends,' says Richard Billyeald.
Professor Siraj Shaikh, an expert in vehicle technology from Coventry University believes there are different ways the situation could develop. 'It could be that this form of theft becomes more frequent and insurers will respond by charging an extra premium for motorists who choose keys that have the keyless entry option. And when purchasing a car, it's worth remembering that this is a luxury option rather than an essential one, and that it might be better from a vehicle safety point of view to pass on it.
'However, as someone whose professional mission is to improve vehicle security systems, I am hoping that we will be able to work together with manufacturers and law enforcement to make relay theft impossible for criminals, so that keyless entry can be offered as an option that's both convenient and secure.'
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How can I protect my car from relay theft?
Turn off or disable the key
'Find out from your dealer if you can disable the keyless entry feature when you are at home,' says Richard Billyeald. 'This is possible via a double-click with Mercedes keys and may be possible with other brands.
Keep keys carefully
'Store your car keys away from entry points such as the door or a windowsill,' says Professor Shaikh. 'It's advisable to do this even if your vehicle doesn't have keyless entry as it's best not to give any casual visitors the chance to to spot where you keep them.'
When it comes to avoiding having the radio signal from the key picked up, some experts have suggested storing your keys in a metal box or even using the fridge! Faraday bags are also recommended. They are lined with metal material and can block the key's signal. The Defender Signal Blocker is an inexpensive choice retailing at around £6.50 on Amazon. 'But test the device by placing the key inside and approaching your car, to double-check that it's effective,' says Richard Billyeald.
Steering wheel lock
Once a familiar sight, the steering wheel lock has fallen from favour as car security has improved. However they could see a resurgence as an old-fashioned steering lock can prove enough of a deterrent to persuade a thief to look elsewhere. Choosing one in a bright colour is best as it means it's easily noticed. This Stoplock Pro (from around £50 on Amazon) is top-rated.
'Relay Theft' thieves often work in the dead of night and rely on not being spotted. It can be a good idea to join the Neighbourhood Watch, and also to talk to your neighbours about this type of crime, so the community can be alert for anyone behaving suspiciously.
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