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Car thieves are hacking key fobs to quickly and quietly steal vehicles

KEYE Austin logo KEYE Austin 5/16/2022 Bettie Cross
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Cars with keyless entry and keyless start are becoming a growing target for thieves. The keyless convenience is being exploited by crooks so they can quickly and quietly pop the locks.

“They’re very bold,” said Jason Flenniken who lives in a south Austin neighborhood.

Flenniken says his street and several others in his neighborhood were recently hit by crooks using relay devices that can hack key fobs. Cameras positioned around Jason’s home caught a guy rummaging through his car. It wasn’t a relay attack because camera footage shows the doors were accidentally left unlocked. But down the street, locked cars were no match for the relatively simple hack.

Caption: Alternatively, inexpensive “RFID sleeves” and “Faraday bags” are available that have metal mesh linings that will shield a key fob from sending or receiving radio signals.

“There were at least three people that were roaming around our particular street,” said Flenniken. “I know in the neighborhood that night we had a lot more valuables stolen, and two actual cars were taken that night.”

Video from a keyless car theft in England shows how it works. Two crooks are needed to pull it off. One goes to the front door where a lot of people store their keys. That signal is then amplified and relayed to the second device that’s being held close to the car door. The car is tricked into thinking the key fob is next to the door. That allows the car to be opened, started, and driven away.

“With a relay attack all you’re really doing is kind of putting an extension cord on your key fob,” said Flenniken. “It’s too easy to do, unfortunately.”

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AAA is trying to raise awareness about keyless car thefts.

“A lot of drivers are not aware of this ability for thieves to steal their vehicle by simply just standing outside of their home,” said Daniel Armbruster with AAA Texas.

AAA says that across the United States, there have been reports that thieves are using power amplifiers to boost the signal from vehicle owners’ key fobs and unlock car doors.

“This can happen to you. It’s not something that’s just a high-tech idea or sci-fi fantasy. This really is happening and, of course, many drivers are finding out the hard way,” said Armbruster.

Keyless car thefts generally take less than two minutes, make little noise, and leave behind no broken glass as evidence a crime has even taken place. AAA says there’s a simple way to protect one of your most expensive pieces of property.

“Don’t leave your key fob in an area near the front door,” said Armbruster. “When you’re at home, store your car keys or fob in a metal cabinet or with some sort of device that protects the radio signal from being intercepted.”

Flenniken is taking that advice. Instead of hanging his keys by the door, he plans to put them in a metal box that will block the key fob’s signal from being transmitted.

“We actually ordered one. Put that by your front door and just drop your keys in that,” said Flenniken. “You have to set yourself up to not be an easy target.”

The Austin dad is also putting more cameras in his front yard and plans to be diligent about locking his car, so he’s better prepared the next time thieves target his neighborhood.

“It was just our turn and it will probably happen again,” said Flenniken.

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Here are some other precautions AAA says drivers can take:

  • Don’t leave valuable items (purses, GPS units, shopping bags, or electronics) in your car. If you must do so, make sure they are out of sight in a locked glove box or trunk
  • Park your car in a closed garage; this makes it a far less inviting target.
  • Store your key fobs (all of them) in a metal container or tin foil when not in use.

Alternatively, inexpensive “RFID sleeves” and “Faraday bags” are available that have metal mesh linings that will shield a key fob from sending or receiving radio signals.

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