LONDON - A rise in keyless vehicles is fuelling a car crime ‘epidemic’ across Britain, police officials fear.
Offences have nearly tripled in the worst-hit areas as thieves exploit the technology to steal vehicles from car parks and driveways.
One senior official said hacking cars was now ‘child’s play’, with criminals able to get in and drive off in just 30 seconds.
After more than a decade of decline, car thefts have surged in the past three years – up by 189 per cent in Warwickshire, 59 per cent in Hampshire, 57 per cent in West Yorkshire and 56 per cent in Norfolk.
It comes as keyless technology, once the preserve of expensive high-end vehicles, has become commonplace among more affordable family cars.
Earlier this week, Cleveland Police said it had received 90 reports of keyless cars being stolen since December, and half of them were Ford Fiestas – the country’s best-selling vehicle of the past decade.
Keyless technology is designed to increase convenience for motorists as it typically means they need just a small fob to unlock their cars, and can drive by pressing an ignition button.
But criminals are exploiting this with devices such as relay boxes, available to buy cheaply on Amazon and eBay for as little as £260.
These gadgets let criminals pick up the signal from a car’s keyless fob lying inside the owner’s home, and extend this signal to unlock the car and start it. The vehicle’s security system is tricked into thinking the key fob is present.
Offenders have been caught on camera strolling up driveways, before holding the devices against the car owner’s front door.
Criminals are also targeting car parks with a gadget that blocks the signal when a driver tries to use a fob to lock their vehicle. This leaves the car open for thieves.
Thieves are targeting car parks with devices that block key fob signals, fooling drivers into believing their cars are locked, police say.
When the victim thinks they are securing their car by pressing the fob, the jamming gadget intercepts the signal, ensuring the vehicle remains unlocked.
The owner would spot this only if they physically checked by trying to open the car door.
But if they walk away without noticing, the thieves can jump in and steal whatever’s inside.
In some car models, the criminals can also start the vehicle using another device.
Detectives say thieves will often take the stolen cars – particularly cheaper models such as Ford Fiestas – straight to illegal ‘chop’ houses.
These are illicit garages where the cars are taken to bits so the spare parts can be sold on.
Car manufacturers have urged owners of keyless cars to double check their cars are locked before walking away.
One device which can be used to steal keyless cars – the HackRF One – is on sale on Amazon for £260.29 and available on eBay for £278.77.
Manufacturers insist cars are more secure than ever, but police are urging drivers to buy old-fashioned steering wheel locks, and even to store fobs in biscuit tins or special cases to protect them.
David Jamieson, police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, said the number of car thefts in his force had doubled in just two years.(FA)