Whilst keyless entry systems have brought us a convenience for which many millions of car drivers are grateful, it also brings opportunity for car thieves to exploit the technology for their own nefarious needs. Even if your car doesn’t, or didn’t, come with keyless entry as standard, it is a feature that can be retrospectively added. 

In just a few short years, car manufacturers saw the benefit of installing keyless entry systems because it removed the bulky locking barrel within the steering column. This saved them some cost in terms of materials, but also gave them a selling point because it increased the leg room for the driver and reduced the risk of leg injury in the case of an accident.

No sooner did it become standard amongst car manufacturers, car thieves were looking to find a way to utilise this technology for their own ends. It didn’t take long for them to make it work to their advantage when looking to covertly steal your vehicle. We wanted to look at how they do it and, more importantly, things you can do to help prevent it happening to you.

What is Relay Theft?

Firstly, let’s talk about what relay theft is. Relay theft, sometimes known as a relay attack or key hacking, relies on the fact that keyless systems have a fob or credit-card style ‘key’ that emits a signal that your car recognises. In normal circumstances, when your car receives that signal from the fob, it deactivates its security and gets the ignition system ready to start, effectively unlocking the car for you.

 When this works perfectly, you get the convenience of remotely unlocking to save you scrambling around in your bag for your keys when your arms are full of shopping. Sadly, this technology can also be used by those looking to steal your car.

Relay theft occurs when two or more people work together to hijack that signal to gain access to your car or van. One of them standards next to the vehicle, whilst the other stands close to where your keys are located. It’s worth pointing out that this distance can be up to 100m, but generally, this means they will stand just outside your home, hoping that you keep your keys located near the front door, like most people do. It’s worth remembering that the signal easily passes through doors, windows, and even walls, so physical barriers aren’t a problem for them.

Once the thieves are in position, one uses a piece of equipment that tricks the key fob into broadcasting its signal, which normally happens when you press the button. The other person stands near the car with a receiver that picks up that signal. This is detected by the car which recognises the prompt, it’s using the signal from the ‘real’ set of keys remembers, and unlocks itself. The thieves then open the door, get in the car, press the ignition button, and drive away. Scary stuff, but how do you protect yourself from it?

Whilst it seems like a hi-tech crime (which it is to some degree), some of the ways you can protect yourself are pretty simple. You can always make sure your keys are stored in something called a Faraday case. This can be a bag, pouch or box that stops the key’s signal from escaping. It blocks all electronic signals in and out, so you’re keys and the fob will be safe from detection.

Other things you can do are good practice for any car; make sure it’s locked when you leave it and fit a physical deterrent (like a wheel lock or steering wheel lock) to the car. Relay theft is attractive because it takes almost zero physical effort. If the thieves have to brute force a wheel lock or wrestle with a mechanical device to get the car, it becomes less attractive for them. 

Finally, you should invest in a car tracking device. Whilst it might not stop them stealing the car, it massively increases the chances of you getting it back, by up to 95% in many cases.

Car theft has always been a game of cat-and-mouse between the vehicle security systems and the thieves themselves, but taking some of this advice on-board and understanding the risks means that you get the upper hand and stay one step ahead.