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Gone in 60 seconds: police warning after gangs target luxury cars in spate of keyless thefts

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 13/10/2017 David Churchill, Justin davenport, Barney Davis

© Provided by Independent Print Limited This is the moment thieves use a high-tech gadget to override a £50,000 BMW’s keyless security system and steal it in less than a minute. 

Detectives are investigating a spate of thefts in London in which criminals have driven cars away from homes without taking the owners’ keys.

Experts say gangs are finding new ways to exploit weaknesses in technology that allows cars to be opened without touching a key and started simply by pushing a button.

Thieves use gadgets, available online, which amplify signals between the car and new-generation keyfobs to trick the vehicle into thinking the owner is nearby.

car3.jpg © Provided by Independent Print Limited car3.jpg

When the car receives the signal, it unlocks, even though the keyfob may be some distance away inside the owner’s home. Thefts involving these “relay attacks” are said to be increasing.

Scotland Yard’s Organised Vehicle Crime Unit said today it was aware of the tactic and urged motorists to take simple precautions. Victims have shared CCTV footage of the thefts online.

The Standard has established that at least four people in north London have had high-value cars stolen in recent weeks by thieves using relay attacks.

One victim’s BMW was stolen from his driveway in Southgate on Tuesday. Within half an hour, the same thieves drove off with his friend’s car a couple of streets away.

car2.jpg © Provided by Independent Print Limited car2.jpg

Another victim, gym owner Graham Sinclair, 44, had his £85,000 BMW X5 stolen from his Enfield drive in the early hours of Friday morning.

He said: “I was actually awake until 4am and never heard a thing and the car was less than 20 metres away from me.

"There were no signs of forced entry and no break-in at the house.

“I reported it to BMW to see if they could immobilise but they couldn’t... it’s so frustrating to know someone got off with your car with that signal enhancer. These thieves are evolving fast and manufacturers need to match them.”

Steve Launchbury, head of research at vehicle security experts Thatcham Research, said more cases of relay attacks were coming to light as technology developed.

Devices to boost the keyfob signals were available on the Dark Web for thousands of pounds and were more likely to be bought by organised criminals who could quickly recoup the cost.

However, Mr Launchbury said Thatcham had been able to build devices at relatively little cost.

Detective Sergeant Pete Ellis said: “This technology used to be confined to more high-end vehicles but it is becoming more widespread and therefore there is a potential for ‘relay attacks’ to become more common.”

He said that anecdotally there were more cases when CCTV had recorded thieves using the technique.

He said a simple countermeasure was to keep keyfobs in so-called Faraday wallets, which jam signals.

Experts say gangs are stealing cars to order and often breaking them up into parts. One issue for criminals stealing cars through relay attacks is that once the vehicles are out of range of the keyfob it is difficult to restart the engines.

So, often cars are driven straight into containers and shipped out of the country. Another expert said anyone with the technical knowledge can assemble the gadgets for less than £100.

BMW said it was constantly working with the police and other authorities to “respond to the latest threats and anticipate new ones”.

It added: “We are aware that BMW vehicles, along with those of many other manufacturers, have been targeted by organised criminal operations using highly sophisticated equipment to steal vehicles.”

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