(Extracted from “5 impressive ways criminal use wireless signals to steal everything – even your car” by Courtney Lender / PopularMechanics)
Imagine coming home after a long day of work, kicking off your shoes, setting your key fob on the table, and heading to bed. Sounds pretty normal. Sounds pretty boring.
Now imagine waking up the next day, putting those shoes back on, grabbing your keys, and heading outside—only to find that your car is missing.
Unfortunately, this is becoming an all-too-frequent occurrence. Bad actors are using technology to steal from us in some of the most clever, infuriating ways.
Here are some of the sneakiest ways these thieves are taking advantage of security flaws
1) Transmitting Car Key Fob Signals
It’s convenient to open your car door without having to dig around in your bag or pocket for the key fob. Certainly it’s one of the selling points for push-to-start cars, but it’s also making life ridiculously easy for thieves. As with so many advances in technology, there have been unintended consequences for this standard in newer cars.
According to FBI statistics, auto theft hit an eight-year high in 2017, with 773,139 reported cases—up from an all-time low of 686,803 in 2014. That occurred in tandem with an increase in keyless ignition systems: In 2018, 62 percent of cars sold use keyless ignition as standard equipment, up from 11 percent in 2008, according to car-buying site Edmunds.
So why is it possible to pull off this kind of theft? Keyless ignition systems come with a fob that transmits a unique low-frequency signal to the car’s computer system, which then validates that the correct signal has been sent and allows you to push a button on the dashboard or console to unlock the doors and start the engine.
Hackers can take advantage of this by using a cheap relay box to copy and transmit the signal from your key fob while it’s still inside your home or on your person, making it easy to steal your vehicle. This is called a relay attack, and it’s simple for thieves to pull off as long as they have a friend.
Here’s how it works: Each person carries a relay box, which can be purchased for as little as $20 online. The boxes can pick up the radio frequency from a car key fob that’s sitting on a table inside, hung up on a key rack, or even resting in a purse. The relay boxes allow one person to stand near the home to pick up and amplify the key fob signal and then transmit it to the second box, which the other person holds outside the door of a car. Once the key fob signal reaches the second box, it unlocks the door, as the car thinks you’re holding your key fob nearby. Now the criminals just have to drive away without getting caught and then change the locks.
Virtually every car with an automatic-open key fob is susceptible to theft, even if it isn’t push-to-start. The good news? It’s pretty quick and cheap to prevent yourself from falling victim to a relay attack.
Stay safe: Shove your key fob in your refrigerator, freezer, microwave, or some other giant hunk of metal that can block the radio signal so that thieves can never pick it up. (Just don’t cook your keys.) You can also try wrapping the keys tightly in tin foil to keep the signal from getting out or try storing your keys really, really far away from your car.
2) Stealing Electronics from Cars
Even when a laptop is sitting by idly, like in the backseat of a car or a trunk, it emits a wireless Bluetooth signal so that devices can find and connect to it. The problem? Thieves are now using Bluetooth scanners to walk around cars and locate devices, making targeted break-ins an art.
And finding a cheap Bluetooth scanner is easy; there are even Bluetooth-scanning apps that use a phone’s Bluetooth sensors to find nearby signals. But worst part is these apps and scanners tell you exactly what kind of device nearby is putting out the Bluetooth signal.
Stay safe: You have three options: Put your device in Airplane Mode, power off the electronics completely, or simply remove all electronic devices from your vehicle when you exit.
If you can’t take everything out of the car, double down and buy a Faraday cage or blanket large enough to fit your laptop that you can keep in the trunk of your car. It will prevent any wireless signals from escaping the enclosure.