Tips for Protecting Your Car

In Everett, Washington, Jasmine Vandelac awakened one morning to discover that someone had ransacked the Honda Odyssey minivan and Toyota Tacoma truck parked in her driveway and made off with her husband’s electric guitar. Vandelac has security cameras mounted around her home, but when she watched the video from around 2 a.m., she was puzzled.

“It was a group of four men who came down the driveway at the same time,” she recalls. “Each went to a different side of the vehicles. Then one man took something out of his pocket — it looked to be about the size of a cell phone — and aimed it at the cars. Then, instantly, the lights went on and all four doors opened.”

Vandelac is sure that both vehicles were locked. Nevertheless, the thieves apparently were able to open the vehicles’ keyless-entry systems as readily as if they’d been using the smart keys that she says were inside her home.

The still-unsolved theft is just one of numerous reports over the past year, in locales ranging from Sausalito, California, and Yukon, Oklahoma, to Saginaw County, Michigan. Criminals are gaining entry to parked cars, apparently by tricking their keyless-entry systems into unlocking the doors.

None of the perpetrators have been caught, and the gadgetry they are using remains mysterious. But some electronic security experts believe that the criminals may be exploiting the convenience of keyless-entry systems, which are designed to detect and authenticate the smart key inside a car owner’s pocket as he or she pulls on the door handle. They say that if the thieves can amplify the car’s signal (a “relay attack,” in electronics lingo) it can be fooled into using the owner’s key to open the doors, even if that key actually is on a nightstand or the kitchen table inside the house.

But the vulnerability doesn’t stop with the doors. European researchers actually have used the same sort of electronic trickery to start cars’ ignitions and drive them away — though fortunately, thieves haven’t followed suit. At least not yet.

The hacking of keyless-entry systems is so new that there isn’t yet any reliable data on how often it is occurring, says Carol Kaplan, director of public affairs at the National Crime Insurance Bureau, an industry organization that tracks auto thefts and break-ins.

“But we hear increasingly from law enforcement agencies that we work with that there are more and more cases like this,” she says. “One problem is that it’s very hard to prove that a car has been broken into by using this method. There’s no evidence left behind, no broken glass or scratches on your car. All you know is that you come back, and your stuff is gone.”