It’s the high-tech scenario that has a lot of motorists very worried.
An unsuspecting car owner emerges from his keyless vehicle, unaware of the close proximity of a dark-clad figure wearing a black backpack.
The doors automatically lock and he walks off down the street.
But the driver has no idea that the signal from his key fob has been remotely intercepted via a sophisticated computer device hidden in the stranger’s bag.
It’s all the tech-savvy thief needs to quickly determine the car’s secret access code and drive the vehicle away.
While overseas media outlets such as The New York Times and the UK’s The Telegraph have reported at length on cases involving thieves hacking into keyless cars, the question is: are Australian car owners at risk?
Have keyless cars become a target for thieves in Australia?
"The answer is actually no,” says Detective Superintendent Murray Chapman of the NSW Police.
“There’s no trend of technology being used to break into cars and steal them. It’s not an issue in Australia.”
Rather than serve as a cause for concern, Chapman says that motor theft in Australia continues to trend downwards, adding that initiatives such as vehicle immobilisers, better security devices and alarm systems have made new cars much harder to steal.
Robert McDonald, Manager of NRMA Insurance Research Centre, also believes the hacking of keyless cars is a non-issue.
“This movie and Internet view of thieves being super sophisticated, carrying attaché cases with electronic gear inside just doesn’t happen,” he says.
“The way the majority of people steal cars these days is overwhelmingly through obtaining a key.”
McDonald believes the possibility of a keyless car being hacked by thieves is extremely miniscule.
“That’s because the key has a very low range, about a metre, so someone has to get very close to you and for long enough to scan the signal and do some sort of computer work to duplicate the signal,” he says.
“They’d also need some fairly sophisticated electronics to do that. It’s just not the way car thieves work.”
Security is key
Paradoxically, high-technology vehicles are most likely to be stolen using a decidedly low-tech approach – by gaining access to an actual key.
And while rates of car theft have indeed fallen across the country, the number being stolen due to lack of key security is rising.
According to statistics from the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council (www.carsafe.com.au), 70% of late-model vehicles are stolen using the keys, with half of all cars stolen taken from the home.
“We’ve seen an increase nationally in the incidence of keys being stolen from residential homes and through people leaving keys lying about,” says Chapman.
“It’s very opportunistic – you leave your door or windows open, or maybe leave your car keys on a hook inside the front door, and thieves will take advantage.”
While some internet sources even suggest keeping your key fobs in a freezer or microwave oven to render them unhackable, McDonald says that the simplest ways of preventing car theft are still the most effective.
“People have to be aware that their key is the key to the whole issue,” he says.
Common security mistakes
“They need to make sure they keep their keys in a secure place, that they don’t leave them in an obvious place, so that during a burglary, for example, thieves can’t easily find them.”
McDonald adds that it’s not uncommon for burglary victims to not immediately notice that their keys are missing, giving the thief an opportunity to return a few days later to steal the car, or on-sell the key and address to another thief.
“Another common mistake people make is leaving the keys in the car while they pay for petrol, which is a big no-no.”
4 car key protection tips
A great way to protect your car keys is to enhance your security at home. Here are a few expert tips from carsafe.com.au.
- Always store car keys out of view and away from external doors and windows (remember: thieves mostly target master bedrooms first, followed by living rooms and home offices).
- Don’t tag your keys with your name or address – use a mobile number or driver licence number instead.
- If your car is at home but you’re out, make sure you have all the keys with you.
- Never leave a spare set of house or car keys in your car.
And finally, if the worst happens, you can protect yourself against the impact of car theft by having good car insurance.
Disclaimer: Speak to your Car and CTP Insurance providers about any policy limits and exclusions that may apply. NRMA Car Insurance issued by Insurance Australia Limited ABN 11 000 016 722 AFSL 227681 trading as NRMA Insurance. This is general advice only, so to see if a product is right for you, always consider your own circumstances and the Product Disclosure Statement available from NRMA Insurance.