What You Need to Know About Vehicle Theft: Protecting Your Keys & More

the front grill of a BMW SUV

Car thefts have increased by nearly 45% in Toronto compared to last year and by 55% in Peel Region – and we haven’t reached the end of the year yet. Such steep rises in a single year reveal a disturbing trend in the GTA and across Canada; the majority of those thefts are of high-end luxury vehicles with sophisticated smart car technology – and they are often stolen as their owners sleep a few feet away.

Electronic car thefts are not new, but as auto manufacturers add more security to their technology, criminals are also getting more sophisticated and finding ways around that security.

How Does an Electronic  Car Theft Happen?

With keyless entry and push-to-start vehicles, the key fob and keyless entry port communicate with each other using a low-frequency radio signal that unlocks the vehicle when they are around 36 inches away from each other or closer.

Criminals use a device that detects the signal between the fob and the vehicle and amplifies it (this is called a “relay hack”), and the system is tricked into unlocking the vehicle as it’s been “told” that the fob is within range. In a relay attack, the key fob is often sitting on a table or hung on a key rack next to the front door.

It’s Not Just Vehicles that are Being Stolen

While a relay attack allows a thief to start both keyless entry and push-to-start vehicles, a push-to-start vehicle still requires a key fob in the ignition, or it will shut down and not restart if you attempt to drive it. A relay attack can be used to steal a keyless entry vehicle, however, or a push-to-start vehicle that allows it to be driven with no key in the ignition.

But thieves often use relay attacks to break into a vehicle with no intention of stealing it. They are looking for valuables and, more disturbingly, ‘pink slips’ from the glove compartment.

A proof of insurance card, or ‘pink slip,’ contains highly sensitive personal information, including the insured’s full name and address, the vehicle identification number (VIN), the name of the insurance company and the policy number for the vehicle.

Cloning Cars Using Stolen Personal Information & the Evolution of Relay Attacks

The information stolen from pink slips is used by criminals in “vehicle cloning” frauds. The criminals make counterfeit VIN numbers based on that information and install the fake VINs into stolen vehicles. Those vehicles are then listed for sale, and unsuspecting buyers purchase them, later finding out the vehicle was stolen. The buyer is now out the money they paid for the vehicle and has nothing to show for it.

Car thieves have also learned how to steal push-to-start vehicles using a method known as “reprogramming” theft. The criminal uses mechanical tools to break into a vehicle, accesses its diagnostic port and reprograms a blank key fob that they can now keep in the ignition, allowing them to steal push-to-start vehicles they were previously unable to. A reprogramming theft can be done in under 15 minutes.

Many of these vehicles are immediately transported to cargo ships and sold overseas for 2 or 3 times what they are worth.

Who is Stealing Vehicles This Way?

Obviously, these are highly skilled, creative and determined criminals, not the stereotypical teenage punks stealing cars to go joyriding or the criminals who steal cars to commit another crime.

The level of sophistication needed not only to pull off these thefts but to pull off multiple thefts with all the vehicles disappearing so quickly suggests a network of criminals working together. The number of electronic car thefts has been steadily increasing, and they are now the most common type of car theft.

The numbers show that thefts of the same vehicle are also increasing. This likely means that when someone figures out how to bypass a certain vehicle’s security, that vehicle is then targeted by thieves like a coordinated attack.

While reading all this sounds like just more reasons to buy an electric car, there are steps you can take to discourage thieves, make it harder for them and/or take action after the theft. One of the first is to keep up-to-date on the type of vehicles that are stolen in your area. You can check out your local police service’s website for reports on local crimes and car thefts.

Person in Anonymous mask holding up an electronic device

How to Protect Your Vehicle From Theft

Recommendations for protecting a vehicle from theft include using a variety of tools, some preemptive, some in real-time, and some after the fact:

  • Park in a secure structure, i.e., that has a locked door or gate and where it would be safe to use valet parking.
  • Keep your key fob in a radio frequency shielding box or pouch to block its signals.
  • Buy a device that allows you to lock your vehicle’s onboard diagnostic port door.
  • Keep your insurance card and ownership in your wallet, not your vehicle. You must remember, however, to have them with you every time you drive.
  • Never leave your car running and unattended.
  • Use a steering wheel lock to discourage theft.
  • Don’t leave anything in your vehicle that is visible from the outside, especially digital devices.
  • If you are in an unfamiliar area that you don’t want to leave your car in, try Luxe valet parking in Toronto.
  • Install an aftermarket GPS tracker that may help police find your car if it’s stolen.
  • Use valet parking for private events.
  • Consider installing high-quality video surveillance and ensure your cameras are properly placed and functioning for 24-hour use.

Finally, keep a record of the year, make, model, serial and VIN number of your vehicle in case you need to report it stolen, and drop a business card down the driver’s side door in case the police recover it.