The keyless crime wave has hit British motorists hard in recent years.
There were 101,198 vehicles stolen in England and Wales alone last year, recent Home Office data shows – and many of these are thefts of cars with keyless technology using ‘relay’ tactics.
Despite sky-high levels of car crime and a constant news stream of CCTV footage showing motors being pinched from owners’ driveways in the dead of night, only half of drivers with cars featuring the tech use specialist devices and household items to block this type of theft, according to a new report.
A survey of more than 4,000 UK drivers found that half are not taking any measures to secure they keyless cars from criminals who are using relay tactics to target them
While around half a million cars were being stolen annually at the height of the crime in the 90s, the volume of thefts have been increasing significantly in recent years.
Experts believe this is due to the higher cost of used cars and a lack of available parts, which has made stealing in-demand motors very lucrative for criminals.
Claims specialist, Claims Management & Adjusting, recently issued a freedom of information requests to the Home Office and was told that 72 per cent of stolen vehicles are never recovered, which is costing the insurance industry an estimated £1.5billion a year.
Yet half of owners of cars with keyless technology admit they are not taking any preventative measures to protect their vehicles.
Motorists can buy specialist Faraday pouches for their key fobs, which are cheap protective sleeves that block the signal the key generates and therefore protects their car from criminal.
Drivers have also been told that putting their keys inside household appliances, including freezers and microwaves, can also stop criminals infiltrating the signal.
However, 51 per cent of motorists who own models with keyless technology told the AA they do not use any of these items.
Keyless car owners, where do you store your keys?
51% My key is not stored in anything
22% Faraday pouch
9% Metal box
7% Safe box
1% Wrapped in foil
Source: AA poll of 4,079 keyless car owners
The poll of 4,079 drivers with keyless cars found that just a fifth have Faraday pouches.
Another 9 per cent said they store their keys in a metal box to block the signal, while 7 per cent use a dedicated safe box.
One per cent said they wrap their keys in foil for safe keeping, while a similarly small percentage admitted they store their keys in a microwave or oven overnight.
The remaining 13 per cent say they use other security measures to protect their keys from criminals.
Tracker, a leading provider of vehicle tracking systems, said that it has seen an increase in the number of vehicles stolen without the thief having possession of the keys in the first six months in 2022.
Based on its records a staggering 94 per cent of stolen cars with Tracker devices fitted in 2022 so far are models with keyless technology.
In the first six months of 2021, that figure was 92 per cent.
Range Rovers and Land Rovers are the models most commonly targeted, it said.
Gus Park, managing director of AA Insurance Services, said: ‘The key has always been the most vulnerable part of the car when it comes to security, but many are unaware how important it is to protect it.
‘Car thieves have gone high-tech and relay theft has been on the rise for some time, yet drivers are still unaware of the risks surrounding keyless entry cars. Keyless entry is becoming more common too with more manufacturers offering the tech on lower specification cars.
‘Drivers should do all they can to protect their keys.
‘While a minority store their keys in the microwave it is not recommended and there are simpler ways of safeguarding your vehicle.
‘For as little as a tenner, people can reduce the risk of theft by keeping their keys in a faraday pouch.
‘Depending on the spare key, drivers may need two as this may also be a keyless entry key.
‘They should also be stored well away from the front door and kept out of sight.’
How do criminals steal cars using relay tactic?
Criminals usually go in pairs to steal keyless cars. One holds a transmitter and stands next to the vehicle while the other stands close to the house holding an amplifier
To target the latest – and usually high-end – motors, thieves are arming themselves with cheap technology that allows them to take cars without having to step foot into someone’s property to take the keys.
Keyless entry and keyless ignition means a driver only needs to have the car’s key on their body – in their pocket for instance – not only to unlock the doors but to start the engine.
While this is a convenience feature, it is also one that leaves owners susceptible to car crime.
Usually two thieves will work together when planning to pinch a car with keyless tech. One holds a transmitter and stands next to the car while the other stands close to the house holding an amplifier.
The amplifier can boost the signal from the key inside the property and send it to the transmitter.
The transmitter essentially becomes a ghost key and tricks the car into thinking the real key is nearby. This then opens the car and allows it to be driven away without causing any damage.
Insurers have estimated that around half of all car thefts are currently conducted in this way because criminals can do it quickly and in near silence, with gangs usually targeting vehicles in the middle of the night without raising suspicion.
Five tips to protect your car from relay theft
1. Keep your key fob well away from your vehicle and store it in a Faraday wallet
Place your keys or fob as far away from the vehicle as you can and store them in a location that is not near doors or windows in your property.
Even keeping them upstairs or in a room that’s the furthest distance from your driveway will not guarantee that a criminal using relay tactics won’t be able to infiltrate the fob.
For the best level of protection, owners of cars with keyless tech should purchase a Faraday pouch or wallet.
You can buy these online for as little as £5 (Halfords currently has one for £4.50).
These isolate the key fob’s signal so to block devices commonly used by thieves to detect it to gain access to your vehicle.
Metal tins and boxes will also provide similar protective levels, as will keeping your key fob in a fridge freezer, microwave or oven – just remember they are in there before turning on the latter two.
Also, don’t forget about your spare keys and apply the same level of care you would to your main keys or fob.
2. Invest in extra protection for your vehicle
A simple steering wheel lock or wheel clamp might look ugly but are a great tool to deter even the hardiest criminals.
They will act as a visual deterrent for thieves who will likely avoid them.
For a criminal to remove a steering wheel lock typically requires the use of noisy drills or saws to cut through, and therefore they are the ideal first line of defence for owners with models that have keyless car tech.
Most steering wheel locks require a key, though Halfords recently launched the first fingerprint-activated lock, which costs £60, as part of a bid to cut down on the rising spate of keyless thefts.
Drivers should also consider wheel clamps as well as having alarm systems and trackers (read more about these below) installed.
Owners of vans with keyless technology should also consider fitting deadbolts for additional protection, especially if they store expensive tools and items in their commercial vehicles overnight.
3. Be mindful when locking the vehicle
It may sound simple but if your vehicle has keyless entry, make sure it is locked every time you’re not in it, even if it’s just for a couple of minutes when you’re paying to park somewhere – thieves can take an unlocked car in seconds.
When it comes to locking, many modern cars have keys with two settings – for single and double locking.
Many drivers don’t realise that on many models if you press your key fob once your car will only be single locked.
This means that if you smashed the window you could manually open the car by reaching in and pulling the handle from the inside.
These key fobs require a second pressing of the locking button to enable all security features. It is important to read your car’s manual when you first get it and familiarise how to securely lock your car when you’re not in it.
4. Think carefully about where you park overnight
Driveway parking posts are a cheap but efficient way of deterring would-be thieves.
Drivers can also go one step further and install lockable gates in their driveway, while simple CCTV systems can provide further peace of mind.
Luxury cars, which are at greater risk of theft, should be parked in a locked garage where possible.
5. Install a tracking device
Installing a tracker system in your vehicle, such as a Thatcham approved device, offers an extra layer of security.
A tracking device won’t stop your vehicle being stolen, but it significantly increases the chances of the police recovering and returning it to you.
Tracker, one of the biggest providers of these systems, says it has seen a year-on-year increase in vehicle thefts and recoveries in the opening six months of the year.
More than £5million worth of vehicles in the first half of 2022 were recovered by Tracker, an increase of 13 per cent compared to the same period in 2021.
Range Rovers and Land Rovers were most commonly stolen and recovered by the company between January and June, accounting for four of the top models recovered. They also account for 44 per cent of all cars recovered by Tracker.
The other make and model taking a spot in Tracker’s top five list was the Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
‘Keyless theft has been on an upward trend across the country for many years now, with keyless entry systems now commonplace and criminals adept at taking advantage of security-tech weak spots,’ explains Clive Wain, head of police liaison at Tracker.
‘The increasing demand for used cars and car parts is pushing up prices and increasing profits for the professional criminals stealing cars to meet demand. For these professionals, it can take less than two minutes to steal a car without the keys, if the owner has left the key fob within reach of the signal from a relay device outside of the property.’
The most-stolen cars of 2021 revealed
Car theft data obtained by leasing firm LeaseLoco via a Freedom of Information request to the DVLA revealed which models are stolen in the highest numbers last year.
The figures are based solely on volumes and doesn’t take into account the number of each model on the road.
Most-stolen car models in 2021
1. Ford Fiesta: 3,909
2. Land Rover Range Rover: 3,754
3. Ford Focus: 1,912
4. VW Golf: 1,755
5. Mercedes-Benz C-Class: 1,474
6. BMW 3 Series: 1,464
7. Land Rover Discovery: 1,260
8. Vauxhall Corsa: 1,218
9. Vauxhall Astra: 1,096
10. Mercedes-Benz E-Class: 818
Source: DVLA records provided to LeaseLoco. Figures are for 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021
That’s is why it is no surprise that the Ford Fiesta – the most common model registered in Britain – is at the top of the list, with 3,909 reported stolen to the police.
But other cars prominently placed in the top 10 list are proof that criminals are targeting high-end models as well as those that are readily available.
In second spot in the overall rankings was the Range Rover, which is significantly less common, though far more valuable than the Fiesta.
There were 3,754 reported cases of the expensive Land Rover SUVs being stolen from keepers last year.
It’s a reflection of the ongoing crime wave involving criminal gangs using keyless technology to target high-value premium cars – a problem that has been worsening in recent years.
There is further evidence of luxury vehicles being taken via keyless ‘relay thefts’ in the top 10.
While common cars like the Ford Focus (1,912), Volkswagen Golf (1,755) and Vauxhall’s Corsa (1,218) and Astra (1,096) all feature, there are plenty of expensive, premium-brand vehicles in the order.
These include the Mercedes-Benz C-Class (1,474) and E-Class (818), BMW 3 Series (1,464) and Land Rover Discovery (1,260).
The VW Golf, another popular car in Britain, was the fourth most-nicked model, with 1,755 cases
The Range Rover is the second most stolen car in 2021, with 3,754 instances. This is likely the result of gangs targeting the high-value SUVs using keyless thefts
Car thieves are targeting more prestigious marques, such as Mercedes and BMW, especially slightly older models with keyless entry systems that are easier to infiltrate
Some 1,260 Land Rover Discovery models were taken by thieves in 2021, the stats show
Some links in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them we may earn a small commission. That helps us fund This Is Money, and keep it free to use. We do not write articles to promote products. We do not allow any commercial relationship to affect our editorial independence.