Currently reading: How crooks can steal your car - without the key
High-end cars with keyless entry can be worryingly easy prey for thieves. We spend a day with the Metropolitan Police to see how they’re fighting back
6 mins read
15 March 2015

If you’d stolen a Range Rover and were, one Thursday this month, triumphantly driving it down the A13 from London to Tilbury Docks to stash it in a container on a ship bound for Africa, your luck was just about to run out.

Positioned on the eastbound carriageway of this busy road, on a section between Dagenham and the Dartford Crossing, was a police car fitted with an automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR) system that alerts officers to vehicles recorded as being linked to crime.

Farther down the road were four marked and unmarked pursuit cars, waiting for the nod from the ANPR police car to give chase to any vehicle that the alert system flagged up.

Nearby off a slip road, waiting patiently in the teeth of a biting easterly wind blowing across the Essex marshes, was a squad of about 30 police officers, their job to process any vehicle, and its occupants, the pursuit cars escorted in. Your reception committee, if you like, poised to read you your rights – before slapping on the cuffs.

The activity that bitterly cold Thursday afternoon was part of a week-long, region-wide operation codenamed Operation Endeavour that involved 800 police officers patrolling 20 major roads in and around London. Although the police were happy to hoover up any criminals who strayed into their net, they were particularly keen to catch those who steal ‘keyless’ vehicles – cars that can be unlocked automatically when they sense the owner’s key fob in close proximity and that have an engine start button.

The police operation came against the backdrop of a long-term fall in the number of vehicle thefts (from 318,000 in 2002 to 74,600 in the 12 months to September 2014) but a sharp rise in the number of cars stolen by gangs targeting keyless vehicles.

For example, the Metropolitan Police says that of the 24,000 vehicles stolen in London last year, 6000 were stolen without their owners’ keys, the majority of them keyless vehicles. More than 70% of such vehicles were high-value Land Rovers and BMWs but they also included Ford Fiestas and Ford Transit and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans.

Meanwhile, Autocar has seen confidential police reports detailing thefts of cars in London by week. It makes surprising reading. For example, during one February weekend, 17 Range Rovers were stolen across London, while in just one area, two Land Rover Defenders, one Range Rover and one Range Rover Evoque were stolen.

However, criminal gangs aren’t only targeting high-value cars like these. Again, during one recent weekend, five Fiat 500 Lounge-edition models and four 11-plate Ford Galaxys were stolen, suggesting that criminals are stealing to order.

Sammy Miller, from Birmingham, knows exactly what the owners of these cars have been through. Her two-year-old Range Rover Autobiography, which would cost around £100,000 today, was stolen from her driveway in less than 30 seconds by a keyless car thief who simply opened the door, got in and drove off.

She was in her house at the time but knew nothing about the theft until Tracker, a vehicle location company, rang her to ask if she knew her car was being driven. “I looked out of the window and couldn’t believe it: my car was gone,” Miller said later.

When she looked at her CCTV system, she was shocked to see how easy it had been for the thief to steal her car. “He just opened it, got in and was gone in 30 seconds,” she said. Fortunately, Tracker and the police located Miller’s Range Rover less than an hour later, parked up and abandoned.


Find an Autocar review

Read our review

Car review
Land Rover Range Rover review hero front

The fourth-generation Range Rover is here to be judged as a luxury car as much as it is a 4x4

Back to top

With many cars stolen in this way, the outcome for their owners is rather less fortunate. Many are shipped out of the country, to Africa or eastern Europe, as a whole vehicle. Meanwhile, others are simply driven to so-called slaughterhouses where they are stripped down to their component parts for sale to the highest bidder. Typically, a Range Rover engine will make £1000 and a whole vehicle £10,000.

Sure enough, as the police were patrolling the bleak, bitterly cold A13 near Dagenham, another police team was cracking open a collection of suspicious-looking shipping containers at the Port of Felixstowe, 75 miles away. Inside, they found mountains of stolen car parts as well as five complete Range Rovers, some buried under mattresses and behind stolen bicycles.  

Back in the ‘reception’ area off the A13, news of their colleagues’ success was spreading among the shivering police officers. Success here would soon warm them up and, sure enough, bang on 2pm, it came in the form of a brilliant white Range Rover shepherded in by two police cars. Its two occupants were quickly surrounded as officers, some with sniffer dogs, probed every inch of the vehicle. Eventually, the pair were led away, in handcuffs.

In truth, the car didn’t look like one worth risking your freedom for, being a touch too old and ‘Essex’-looking. The driver eventually returned, free of his cuffs, before casually driving it away. His mate, meanwhile, remained behind. He’d been arrested for carrying a knife. 

Detective chief superintendent Carl Bussey, who led the operation, was unfazed. “The real point of this week’s operation is to educate motorists about the risk ofkeyless theft,” he said. “We’ll be bringing drivers in to tell them how they can help themselves from being victims of this growing crime.”

His advice may come as a surprise to anyone who has recently purchased a £100,000 Range Rover: fit a Krooklok or similar device. It could be enough to panic and delay a thief who has come armed with a key programmer rather than a hacksaw. In addition, said Bussey, owners should consider installing a lock on the on-board diagnostics (OBD) port and a tracking device, and park their vehicle in a well-lit area.

Bussey said the force is talking to car makers about tightening vehicle security. Their representative body, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, has told Autocar that car makers are doing all they can to respond to the problem, including applying software updates and making OBD ports harder to locate.

At the reception area on the A13, the police seemed to be waiting in vain for their hot Range Rovers and Porsches. In their place, a procession, largely of tatty vans, filed in, each with their own sorry tale of casual, opportunistic crime, such as the one stuffed full of stolen bicycles.

And then, just as we’d given up hope, in came a tasty-looking 64-plate Volkswagen Golf GTI. Police circled, dogs sniffed and investigating officers had that relaxed, confident look that comes from knowing they’ve got their man.

Back to top

Only they hadn’t, quite. The car wasn’t stolen, but the dogs had found bundles of cash in it. Explain that, Mr Driver.

The A13 may not have yielded a keyless theft, but Operation Endeavour was, said the police, a huge success. Officers arrested 84 people, 16 on suspicion of vehicle theft, the rest for a range of offences including possession of offensive weapons, burglary, money laundering and driving while disqualified. In addition, they seized five Range Rovers and hundreds of vehicle parts, believed to have been from 12 BMWs stolen from London.

That long, cold wait by the A13 had been worth it after all.

How do the thieves do it?

There are a variety of ways criminals can gain access to a keyless car. The messiest one involves breaking a window. More straightforward is trying the car’s door handles first, since some models can remain unlocked if the owner’s key fob is nearby - inside the house on a window sill, for example.

If the fob is too far away for the car’s short-range security signal to communicate with it and unlock the doors, the thief can stand nearby, capture the signal on a device and transmit it to a mate with a receiver standing close to the owner a convenient distance away. This tricks the car into believing it’s close to the key fob and the doors are immediately unlocked.

Another method is to jam the signal from the owner’s key fob to the car. The owner thinks he or she has locked the car and walks away, leaving the thief to sneak on board.

Whichever way they gain access, once in the car the thief plugs a hand-held ‘key fob’ programmer, freely and legally available on the internet, into the car’s on-board diagnostics (OBD) port to record the car’s vital systems data. Car makers are obliged by law to permit rival services to access the OBD, hence the existence of such devices. Once the fob is programmed - which takes less than 15 seconds - the thief is in control of your car.

John Evans

Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below:

Join the debate


15 March 2015
Manufacturers need to stop building cars with keyless entry and especially, cars that car be started without a key. Nobody needs keyless entry, it is just a silly gimmick to keep the marketing departments happy.

15 March 2015
Frightmare Bob wrote:

Nobody needs keyless entry, it is just a silly gimmick to keep the marketing departments happy.

Statements that begin 'but nobody needs...' are a sign you're getting old and reactionary ;)

As far as I understand it the issue isn't with the wireless keys at all, but with an insecure implementation of vehicle diagnostics that are allowing the vehicle to be run without authorisation.

15 March 2015
EndlessWaves wrote:

Statements that begin 'but nobody needs...' are a sign you're getting old and reactionary ;)

You are probably right!

15 March 2015
Surely the real reason that this is an all too easy crime to commit is the EU rules about making details of manufacturers' security systems available to all and sundry in the "interest" of competition between main dealers and independent garages. It is this mis-guided attitude of giving everyone a level playing field in every aspect of business that is the main cause of so many problems in industry, not just the motoring world. In the real world, a company either prospers or fails on its own merits and does not need any technical advantages it develops to be handed out to all its competitors for free.

15 March 2015
I'm not advocating going back to purely manual keys (I once had a three door car that required no less than five keys!) but pressing a button on a fob seems to work quite well. Ok, they can steal your fob from your house, or they could find it when you've dropped it in a car park and quickly locate your car but it still seems more secure than keyless. And turning a key in a ignition barrel seems to work quite well. Another solution to problem we didn't have (electronic handbrakes, powered tailgates, auto-wipers, auto-headlights). I mean, if you can't be bothered to use a fob and a key occasionally, what other aspects of driving do you find too much trouble? Mirrors, signals?

15 March 2015
going backwards to keys or plippers isnt the answer. The EU has to change the rules for security related items. Locking / unlocking, alarms, immobiliser etc. functions should be locked down and kept secret by the manufacturer. It would also be easy to introduce some sort of simple password or electronic key that the owners only know / have that will be required to set certain features via the obd. No password / no electronic key, no access. Hopefully no one will be stupid enough to store this in their glovebox!

15 March 2015
If OBD ports were upgraded with a secure physical lock this would easily allow the benefits of keyless cars and soon stop this. Not exactly rocket science.

15 March 2015
Deputy wrote:

If OBD ports were upgraded with a secure physical lock this would easily allow the benefits of keyless cars and soon stop this. Not exactly rocket science.

Exactly, I have said the same elsewhere, it you can secure the port, either with a physical lock that needs the ignition key, or even a simple password that the driver can change via the screen most vehicles have these days, the password could be given to any mechanic working on the car, and changed once the work is carried out, in the event of forgetting the password, it would require genuine proof of ownership at a dealership to allow it to be reset. It isnt rocket science.

16 March 2015
Citytiger][quote=Deputy wrote: the event of forgetting the password, it would require genuine proof of ownership at a dealership to allow it to be reset. It isnt rocket science.

So are you saying that with a proof of ownership requirement to reset the password (which would be via the port), the thief is really going to leave it alone? Come on.

These gimmick systems are not required - as someone said, if people cannot be bothered to turn a key then perhaps they also cannot be bothered to mirror, signal etc.

I can see insurance companies having people sign to say the owner accepts no payout in the event of car theft where these setups are in place.

16 March 2015
robhardyuk wrote:

These gimmick systems are not required - as someone said, if people cannot be bothered to turn a key then perhaps they also cannot be bothered to mirror, signal etc.

...yes, that's the obvious conclusion to draw from the drivers of vehicles with these systems fitted. Why not include gearshift paddles, electric seats, sat nav or maybe a self-seeking radio? Where do you stop then??

Look at this lazy idiot with the heated rear windscreen. Can't scrape his own rear window...? I bet he doesn't indicate at roundabouts!


Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review