We investigate how car thieves operate and the best ways to protect your prized wheels from being stolen...

There are few worse feelings than returning to your parking spot only to find it empty. The reality is, despite modern vehicles’ security systems being more advanced than ever, professional thieves are often one step ahead of the game. We spoke to the experts on the right side of the law at Roadrunner Locksmiths in Paarden Eiland (roadrunnerlockco.co.za) to gain insight into the technology criminals use to relieve you of your vehicle.

Which cars are targeted?

Professional thieves steal on order and, whereas you and I may not see any patterns, countrywide statistics indicate that popular passenger vehicles feature high on the hit list because the demand for them (and their parts) is greater. Commercial vehicles and bakkies are also on the wanted list, but sportscars are rarely stolen (except to go on joy rides) because they are easy to spot and therefore difficult to hide or sell.

Modern car-security systems

Most modern cars have the following security systems:

• Mobile wireless transmitter generating a rolling code to open doors and boot (can be separate or integrated with the key fob).   

• A key with chip that carries a code and is read by a receiver in the vehicle (most commonly, an ignition ring at the key barrel).

• Engine control unit evaluating the code received from the key before allowing the engine to start.

• Various sensors on latches, including motion sensors.

Stealing your car

It all depends on how much time is available for the theft...

10 seconds: When there’s little time, hijacking is quick and the key is with the vehicle.

5 minutes: Relay theft is done by a pair of thieves on vehicles fitted with a keyless-entry-and-start system. Thief number one moves in close to the key in a situation, for example, where you’re sitting at a restaurant with your key in your pocket. They carry a device that can both copy the signal transmitted by the key and transmit it to a device carried by thief number two at your car. Now your car is fooled into thinking its key is in proximity, allowing thief number two to get in, start the car and simply drive off. Some vehicles’ keys can be cloned (blank-cut and chip-programmed) if the thief can get access to the actual vehicle key before attempting the theft. The cloned key fools the vehicle into thinking it is the original.

10 minutes: Jamming the remote signal when the driver walks away is the easiest (also used for removing valuable items from a car). Some jammers even allow the lights to flash but prevent the doors from locking when the driver hits the remote. The advantage is that the alarm is still deactivated when the thief gets into the car. These days, criminals also employ sneaky tech solutions, such as replacing the car’s ECU with a “virgin” unit. This comes with a previously paired chip in a blank key that can fit the ignition barrel (or transmit the paired signal if the system is keyless). Of course, there is the opportunist who uses force to enter the car by breaking the locking mechanisms but this sets off the alarm.

20 minutes: When a generous amount of time is available, the thief can use specialised lock-picking tools to open the locks and enter the car without damage. The alarm sounds but many systems can quickly be silenced by removing a battery terminal or cutting the wire to the alarm speaker. Now the engine can be started with the method explained earlier.

New key via a VIN number 

Although some manufacturer keys can be ordered using a car’s VIN, the dealership will ask for proof of ownership and ID. When the key arrives, it still needs to be paired with the vehicle’s ECU before it becomes operational.

Tips to discourage thieves

When you have to leave your car in a public area, the following can prevent your car from becoming a target:

• Park in a busy location and in a well-lit area. Even better, see if a public security camera has a view of your car.

• A visible, mechanical security measure such as a gear lock or steering wheel lock remains an excellent deterrent.

• Before you walk off, ensure the vehicle is locked.

• Have your car data-dotted and display the fact clearly with a sticker, as it discourages the selling of spare parts.

• If a tracking device is fitted, make sure the sticker is clearly visible and the device is well hidden and has its own power source.

 Author: Nicol Louw