Thoughts on Keyless Alarm Systems

I spent most of today in a car salvage yard, inspecting a classic Porsche as part of a total loss claim. Being invited to inspect the vehicle for a report I am compiling offered an excellent opportunity to consult with one of the UK’s most experienced insurance investigators on several issues, one of which was keyless security and the part it has played in an alarming rise in vehicle theft across the UK.

Home Office data shows a sharp rise in vehicle thefts in recent years, from the worrying total of 75,300 cars stolen in 2013/14 to a staggering 112,000 cars in 2017/18. Police forces including Manchester and West Midlands Police attribute the epidemic to the vulnerabilities present in many keyless entry systems, where keyfob signals remain active even when the owner is not and permit techniques such as relaying.

Relaying usually involves two people working together. One stands by the targeted vehicle, while the other stands near the house with a device that can pick up a signal from the key fob indoors: some devices will find a signal from over 100 metres away. The device then relays the key fob’s signal directly to the car, allowing the thieves to get in and drive away immediately. The vehicle is only re-immobilised when the ignition is turned off.

Porsche Macan Keyless System Rating

Porsche’s keyless entry systems made the news this week, after the Porsche Macan was upgraded from a ‘Poor’ rating by Thatcham Research for the performance of its keyless system to a ‘Superior’ rating, after Porsche supplied Thatcham with clarifications on system operation. Richard Billyeald, Chief Technical Officer at Thatcham Research, noted that “vehicle manufacturers are beginning to offer solutions and fixes to Keyless Entry/Start vulnerabilities, with Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes and Porsche really taking a lead. We expect others to follow suit quickly.”

With approximately 320,000 UK registered cars now using keyless technology (Fleet News estimates), thieves still have plenty of targets. They are also employing more direct tactics. I recently wrote an ad for a friend who was selling his Tornado Red Golf GTD privately and within three days he had become a victim of driveway theft. A potential purchaser turned up to see the car, was given the keys to start it on the driveway and instantly locked the doors, stuck in it reverse and drove off with the owner desperately clinging to the bonnet. My friend fell off and ended up in hospital: his insurers now say they will not pay the claim for theft.

My discussion with the insurer’s man today shed some light on what the industry is doing to fight back against the £270 million paid out on UK car thefts last year. His team also carries out deep investigations into claims fraud and does some of the basic checks that traffic police used to routinely carry out when more resources were available.

I passed three red Golfs in police motorway stops around Birmingham over several days last week and wondered how many of those stops would involve a VIN check, to see if the car was running on cloned registration plates, as the stolen Golf GTD may be. The insurance man told me how he had visited a car park in London last week and found three stolen cars on cloned plates: ANPR systems only looking at registration plates rather than VIN numbers can never tell the full story of what is actually moving around.

For every car that is stolen, a vehicle manufacturer will likely sell another one, so there is a certain amount of inertia around increasing the security of keyless systems. Thatcham’s decision to rate the vulnerability of keyless systems to easy theft methods (which can lead to some thefts taking place in less than a minute) has not been well received by manufacturers, but it’s one way to accelerate progress in making things harder for car thieves.

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