Currently reading: Crackdown on websites selling devices for keyless car thefts
Relay tech enables 93% of thefts yet is openly sold online as the UK moves to ban it

After the King’s speech on 7 November included a proposal to outlaw electronic devices that are used for keyless car thefts, Autocar has discovered that they are still being openly advertised for sale on the internet. 

The proposed law will make it illegal to produce, modify, supply, import or possess such devices, with a penalty of up to five years in jail. 

Police believe these are behind the majority of vehicle thefts in the UK, which rose by 25% from 104,435 in 2022 to 130,389 last year. 

According to the latest data from Tracker Network UK, 93% of all the vehicles the firm has recovered had been stolen without their owners’ keys being used.

How are cars stolen without key fobs?

Relay theft is a popular method that requires one thief to capture the signal from the key fob close to the owner’s property and relay it to an accomplice standing by the car with a receiver, who then opens and steals it. Relay devices can be bought online for as little as £100.

However, Autocar has seen a website selling devices that give fuller control of a car – although they require connection to its ‘can bus’ (the wiring system that enables the car’s microcontrollers and processors to communicate with each other) and cost considerably more. 

Devices for most makes and models, including the latest Range Rovers, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, are advertised for sale at prices ranging from £2500 to £30,000. 

How do the devices work?

Steve Launchbury, a member of the vehicle crime and security division at Thatcham Research, a risk intelligence organisation funded by the UK’s insurance industry, explained that by connecting directly to the can bus, the device doesn’t need the key fob to be present or its signal relayed to open and start the vehicle. The device itself contains all of the data necessary to control the car. 

However, access to the vehicle’s can bus isn’t always straightforward, he explained: “The trend we’re seeing is thieves cutting the outside skin of the vehicle to gain access to the can. We’re speaking to manufacturers about rerouting the harness, putting it inside trunking or segregating areas of it, so that full access by a device can’t be obtained.” 


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He added that Thatcham is supporting the Home Office with drafting regulations controlling the sale and distribution of devices like those that we saw for sale. 

What kinds of products are being sold?

Neil Thomas, director of investigative services at vehicle tracking and recovery firm AX Track, told Autocar that he was surprised by the detail offered in the device listings. 

“I’ve seen websites offering these kinds of devices before but never anything in such detail and suitable for so many makes and models,” he said. “The product descriptions such as ‘for emergency starting’ are meant to give the impression of legitimacy, but if you have the money, I’m sure they would sell it to you.” 

Other available products include remote key-signal jammers, used to block the key fob and prevent a vehicle from being locked, and devices that can disable an alarm “in seconds”. 

Another device that appears to work like a relay and is said to enable “emergency starting of an engine” in a car with a keyless ignition system is described as being “available only for special services and detective agencies”. Thomas said: “Could these devices be used for stealing vehicles? Put it this way: one of my contacts has used stuff like this, and his only connection with the police is spending time in the cells.” Autocar contacted the website selling the products but received no reply.

What do the police say? 

A spokesman for the National Police Chiefs’ Council said: “The widespread use of keyless technology has unfortunately led to the development of devices which are easily accessible and make stealing vehicles all too straightforward for criminals.

“We’re working with the Home Office and government to establish how we could put a stop to the sale of these devices. We also regularly engage with vehicle manufacturers on theft prevention and security features to protect vehicles.” 

How are manufacturers responding?

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As a result of spiralling theft statistics for Range Rovers, JLR announced earlier this month that it was retrofitting a security update to versions of the models manufactured between 2018 and 2022. CEO Adrian Mardell said: “The theft record was much worse in 2022 than it is today. Engineers have been working on a significant number of interventions to counteract, avoid and get ahead of the ways that vehicles can be taken.” 

According to the DVLA, in the year to March, one in every 100 Land Rovers was stolen, while six of the 10 most stolen models were Range Rovers, the worst affected being the Velar. As previously reported by Autocar, such a high rate of theft has made Range Rovers almost uninsurable in London.

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289 2 December 2023

Just stop making cars with keyless go....simple.

It was a stupid idea that no one but the idle needed. Just admit it was a failure/flawed idea and thats an end to it.

Bob Cholmondeley 1 December 2023

Car manufacturers know all about this problem, yet they continue to develop and sell cars, that can be so easily stolen at will. They must take responsibility for selling insecure cars, or be forced to do so by legislation.

Peter Cavellini 2 December 2023

[quote=Bob Cholmondeley]

Car manufacturers know all about this problem, yet they continue to develop and sell cars, that can be so easily stolen at will. They must take responsibility for selling insecure cars, or be forced to do so by legislation.

[/quote The trouble is, ever since the Days of Boss car alarms, the retro fit ones, all car brands have been trying to keep one step ahead of the determined car thief,and as electronics progressed the Laptop car thief appeared, today we're no further forward, maybe if like Tesla we had Camera surveillance on cars, we would at least have images of who the criminals are, there aren't enough Bobbies to make this work, car theft isn't such a big crime to them, so, if you have any solutions let's here them.

Peter Cavellini 1 December 2023

A half bottle of Vodka laced with a tasteless poison?, in some Countries this deterrent is used, I've even seen cars fitted with Flame throwers under the doors, not for the West though.