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High-tech vehicles force thieves to up their game

Relay Attack has thieves teaming up to obtain key code and start car

Published: August 12, 2017, 10:30 PM
Updated: August 16, 2017, 5:22 AM

Relay Attack car theft

Volvo digital key access

As vehicles become more sophisticated, vehicle thieves have also had to step up their game and their tech savvy, and today’s thieves are more likely to use your vehicles electronics against it than to jimmy a lock and hot wire the ignition.

Tracker, the London-based market leader in vehicle tracking and stolen vehicle recovery, warns of a new trend in vehicle theft it’s calling “relay attack.”

Relay Attack is pretty much what it sounds like, with a pair of thieves working together to get your car out of your driveway with the help of the keyless-entry transponder that is likely sitting on a key hook near the front door — armed with relay devices such as laptop computers, one thief stands beside your vehicle and the other beside the front door to get close enough to the vehicle transponder to obtain a signal from the key-fob. Once it does, it relays it to the other device beside the car which can unlock the doors and then start the engine, all within a matter of seconds.

BMW Display Key for 2016 BMW 7 Series

“At Tracker, we are seeing more thefts recorded as ‘stolen without the keys' which suggests that electronic manipulation and cyber compromise are on the increase,” explains Andy Barrs, Head of Police Liaison at TRACKER. “The new relay attack technique has gained significant ground in the US and Germany, but it’s also beginning to take hold in the UK, so vehicle owners need to protect themselves and their assets.”

So, passers-by might see somebody seemingly gaming on their porch while having a smoke, when, the person may be a thief obtaining a code from the transponder inside the house.

“As relay attacks become even more prevalent, owners need to protect themselves, particularly since criminal gangs are routinely using relay devices to exploit weaknesses in keyless security systems across a broad range of manufacturers,” adds Barrs. “These tools are readily available on the internet for as little as £80 (about $132 Canadian) and thefts typically occur in residential areas, where cars are parked relatively close to the house, especially at night.”

Hyundai Blue Link smartwatch app - Hyundai also announced its Blue Link smartwatch app, which allows features like remote start and service information to be quickly accessed through devices like smartwatches and smartphones. The wearer simply taps an icon or uses voice commands to execute remote functions. The Blue Link smartwatch app allows owners to remote start, lock and unlock doors as well as find their car in a crowded parking lot. Pushing the microphone icon on the watch activates the voice function, where the driver can execute commands such as “Start my car,” “Lock my car” or “Find my car.”

With today’s Smartphones getting more sophisticated, it’s not too far fetched to soon have mobile apps for relay thefts. Combined with today’s proliferation of mobile apps to control certain vehicle functions, it’s not inconceivable to have thieves targeting valet key stations and relaying codes to partners in the valet parking area.

German research has shown that BMWs and Peugeots seem particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack, and particularly high-risk models include the BMW 7 Series, Ford Focus, Toyota Prius and Volkswagen Golf.

“It’s worth remembering that technology is just one part of vehicle security and more vigilance needs to be taken across the board; this includes car owners, manufacturers, dealers, insurers and the police,” concludes Barrs. “We also urge motorists to remember that whilst a tracking device won’t stop a car being stolen, it can significantly increase the chances of the police locating and returning it to its rightful owner.”

Tracker’s unique technology can locate vehicles even in chop shops or shipping containers, and has been recovering stolen vehicles for nearly 25 years.