“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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