Police figures reveal high-end vehicles including the Range Rover Sport and BMW X3 are being targeted by criminals, who are using high-tech tools to 'hack' and steal cars
Darren Moss
30 October 2014

A new wave of car crime has hit the UK, with owners of high-end cars being told to take additional security measures.

New data from the Metropolitan Police shows that thieves are using re-programmed keys to gain entry to cars from manufacturers such as Land Rover and BMW.

Figures reported by The Guardian newspaper reveal that almost 300 Range Rover Evoques and Range Rover Sports were stolen between January and July of this year, as well as 63 BMW X5 and 3-series models.

Thieves are understood to be targeting these vehicles both because of their popularity in Europe and because of their keyless ignition systems, which can be ‘hacked’ by using a re-programmed key to gain access to the car.

Specialist insurer Alan & Thomas, which deals with high-end vehicles, says the ongoing spate of car crime is being fuelled by demand from eastern Europe.

Head of high net worth insurance at the company Matt Warner said: “There’s a big market out there for high-end vehicles. Generally when we see high-value vehicles going missing they are making their way over to eastern Europe and potentially down into Africa, too.

“We had a case recently where a Range Rover was stolen and picked up on the Hungarian border. That was still in one piece and was likely stolen to order. It’s probably the only occasion where we’ve recovered a vehicle within Europe.”

So why are so few vehicles recovered from Europe once they’re stolen? Warner says it’s down to the car’s tracking systems. “Generally most vehicles will have a tracking system fitted,” he says. “Once the tracking company is notified the police can zero in fairly quickly. However, once a couple of hours have passed thieves have usually located and removed the tracking device. That’s why we usually don’t pick those cars up once they’ve left the UK.”

Making the recovery of stolen vehicles even harder is the fact that most will have been broken up for parts before they’ve even left the UK. “The cars are being taken by organised criminal gangs,” said a spokesman for Thatcham Research. “They’re rapidly shipped out of the country and broken up for parts.” 

The problem is understood to be particularly rife in the UK because buyers here option their cars to a much higher specification than elsewhere. Trim levels such as BMW’s M Sport and Audi’s S-line are coveted in eastern Europe, but the small market for such options there means prices can be high. Such parts can easily be retrofitted to base-spec cars. 

The problem isn’t a new one. In 2012 the flaws of keyless entry systems, and the relative ease of bypassing them, were well known by manufacturers. One example, detailed in this video, shows a BMW 1-series M Coupé being taken from an owner’s driveway within two minutes – and all while the keys to the car were inside the owner’s house.

A spokesman from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said: “This is the latest way to steal cars. Each time manufacturers develop a new way to make cars more secure, criminals will find ways to break it. It’s a constant circle.”

Making keyless entry systems particularly vulnerable is the fact that manufacturers are forced by European law to make their software upgrades, and the tools needed to access their car’s on-board diagnostic systems, available to the wider automotive industry.

The ruling, known as Block Exemption, which is designed to allow the independent automotive aftermarket to compete with main dealers more effectively.

It’s this issue, says the SMMT, that needs addressing. “The issue is that who the information is available to needs to be tightened, and there needs to be better criteria in place to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands,” said an SMMT spokesman. “Plus we need to make sure the punishments for stealing a car are strong enough.” 

In a statement, the SMMT said: “The challenge remains that the equipment being used to steal a vehicle in this way is legitimately used by workshops to carry out routine maintenance.

“As part of the need for open access to technical information to enable a flourishing aftermarket, this equipment is available to independent technicians. However, a minority of individuals are exploiting this to obtain the equipment to access vehicles fraudulently.”

Once thieves have acquired a manufacturer’s security data, keys can be re-programmed using equipment which can be bought on the internet for as little as £42. 

One way to combat the thieves is by issuing security software updates which better protect a car’s internal systems from attack. Other proposed alternatives include fitting a dedicated alarm to a vehicle’s on-board diagnostics port, and encouraging the use of visible deterrents including steering locks.

Land Rover has been quick to reassure customers that its security measures will keep their cars safe. In a statement, the company said: “Our line-up continues to meet the insurance industry requirements as tested and agreed with relevant insurance bodies.

“Nevertheless we are taking this issue very seriously and our engineering teams are actively working in collaboration with insurance bodies and police forces to solve this continuously evolving problem. 

Owners have taken to internet forums to voice their concerns, but Warner says this latest spate of car crime shouldn’t cause premiums on high-end vehicles to rise. “You might find that some insurers recommend adding extra security, and some might revisit their ratings,” he said. “But most insurers agree that at the moment it’s not a big enough problem to cause them to increase their prices.

“We are generally seeing that this is centralised around London and the surrounding areas.”

Direct Line, which insures one in seven cars in the UK, wouldn’t comment on whether the issue might lead to a rise in insurance premiums, but a spokesman said: “Our ongoing risk modelling means that we monitor all makes and models of vehicles for likelihood of theft on a monthly basis.”

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Our Verdict

Range Rover Sport

The Range Rover Sport offers just the right dynamic twist on the well trodden SUV formula

30 October 2014
Interesting to see SMMT speaking for and saving BMW some embrassement. Every time I hear these stories it's mainly BMW and LR and not Porsche, Audi, Mercedes etc

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

30 October 2014
I'd take Land Rover's reassurances with a pinch of salt. They seem totally disinterested in the lack of security of Defender models, and the ease with which the front end of the last model RRS can be nicked.

30 October 2014
According to a report in The Times last week insurance for Range Rovers in London with keyless ignition is almost impossible to obtain. I wonder why Autocar haven't mentioned this ... .

We have keyless entry on one of our cars, and I still can't see the point.

30 October 2014
A scathing report on BBC Watchdog today on BBC's lacklusture attitude to the issue. Also shows the ease with which its done, even on Range Rovers and Audis!!........

bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04nchtj/watchdog-series-34-episode-3

30 October 2014
I doubt the 300 odd people who have lost their vehicles think its not too much of a problem.
As long as the code is openly available this problem will remain.

From cars to corporate hacks the criminals will always get the latest and greatest as soon as it hits the market and immediately start to work out a way round it. There is just such a return, even if they have to they would buy a RR sport just to access the SW.

31 October 2014
Hi there. With regards to this there are other areas to be considered as well. Firstly the cars have to be broken into before the keys can be used, not so easy I imagine! Secondly why are the systems used to program the keys not licensed. Websites like Ebay are definitely culpable surely!

31 October 2014
...would seem to lie at the door (yet again) of those idiots within the EU who seem to legislate for what they call a "level playing field" in every area they can think of regardless of the consequences. Exclusions from the legislation should be made for things like security systems as it is an open invite to the criminally minded to exploit at everyone else's expense. The more one reads about what they do, the more I'm inclined to think we should severely curb their powers or just simply leave; and I speak as someone who was fully in favour of the Common Market originally, the whole thing has just got out of hand now.


Enjoying a Fabia VRs - affordable performance

31 October 2014
All systems have problems, including the Common Market. But the solution is not to run when problems arise but to solve them. There should be something the involved parties can do. Insurance companies together with car companies and police should be able to find a solution. As everything else as long as it's not a big economic problem they won't do anything. But if this starts to eat away some of their profits then you will see action. We have the exact same problem in Sweden and I'm guessing it's the same in other countries. Also don't forget that we have some of our own problems that are not being solved. Bankers wasted billions without being held accountable, just like some other crimes we have in our countries that creates misery for people and not being solved.

Dan

31 October 2014
My cousin in East London lost two BMWs in one night from outside his house. BMWs seem a popular target for car-lifters.

31 October 2014
I had my Audi A4 2.0 TDI Black Edition taken off my drive eight weeks ago. I live in rural Staffordshire. No sign of forced entry. Police reckoned they came with false plates as well, as my plate had not triggered any number plate recognition system in the whole of the county that night.
Everyone concerned knew it wasn't coming back, even the insurance paid out within 18 days of it happening.
So it's not just high end cars that are being taken.

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