How Cars are Stolen

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Developments in vehicle security over recent years have made it increasingly difficult for thieves to steal vehicles by conventional means and this has led to thieves using burglary and fraud, as well as more advanced methods of theft.

Advances in technology have made it difficult for thieves to steal modern cars through the use of low-tech methods and equipment. It is becoming increasingly popular for Organized Crime Groups (OCG) to utilize electronic theft tools to acquire vehicles. Electronic theft tools are designed to bypass on-board security systems either by imitating the coded signals sent from key transponders and radio frequency (RF) devices or by utilizing OE key learning protocols to program keys. Despite the complexity of modern vehicles and the security systems built into their electronic architecture, there are still weaknesses that attack tool designers have been able to exploit.

There is a common misconception, especially amongst insurers, that new cars cannot be stolen without the use of the original key. The reality is that although immobilizers have been responsible for the significant theft reduction in the markets where they are fitted, the availability of technical information and the expertise with which to identify system weaknesses means that a range of tools and methods are now widely available.


The tools that thieves are using to conduct electronic attacks can be divided into two main groups:

  • Theft Tools. These are tools that have been designed specifically to target and exploit the weaknesses in the vehicle’s security systems in order to steal cars. The thieves themselves often produce them either by adapting replacement parts of the vehicle electronics to allow them to perform the functions that they require, or as an independent stand-alone system.
  • Legitimate Tools. These are tools that are designed for automotive locksmiths and security professionals to be used for diagnostic and maintenance applications. They are produced as an OEM tools by the vehicle manufacturer themselves, or as an aftermarket tool produced by a legitimate supplier.

The electronic theft tools being used by thieves host a variety of different functions. These are the main functions that can be harnessed by criminals during the process of stealing a vehicle:

  • Key Programming. This gives the user the ability to program new Transponder, RF controls or Smart Keys to the vehicle immobilizer, locking and alarm systems. Connection to the vehicle can be achieved either through the OBD port or directly through the CAN-BUS. Methods have been publicized for accessing CAN harness connections from outside the vehicle. This enables manipulation of the locking and alarm systems meaning that thieves do not have to force entry to the vehicle’s interior before starting their procedure.
  • Transponder Cloning. Transponder cloning devices allow the user to identify, prepare, read, copy and write a range of transponders. The transponder holds the unique identity that is communicated with the immobilizer unit in the vehicle. It confirms that the correct key has been inserted into the ignition and allows the vehicle to be operated. Cloning of this device would allow a thief to replicate this communication with an alternative key and in the absence of the original key.
  • Immobilizer Programming. Software protection for immobilizer systems can be relatively low. Tools are available which allow for direct manipulation of the software to disable the immobilizer function or to allow replacement of an ECU with a pre-matched or ‘virgin’ ECU and transponder set.
  • EEPROM programming. Some manufacturer’s systems are vulnerable to reading or re-writing of the EEPROM and some stored data. Using this method, PIN-code security protocols used for verification prior to programming can be overcome. The devices that perform these functions are connected either through the CAN-BUS or directly to the ECU, or to the memory IC itself and allow a thief to bypass the security checks needed by some maintenance devices.
  • Relay Attack. Relay attack tools have been designed to target the increasing number of vehicles that use Smart Key technology. Pair of devices are used to capture the signals emitted by the vehicle and Smart Key, and extend their range so that the key and vehicle believe that they are within the authorized operation range. In doing so, a thief is able to enter the vehicle and start the engine without having the original key and without alerting the owner of the vehicle. Relay attacks can typically operate over a range of 100 to 1,000 meters, depending on environmental conditions and the equipment used.
  • RF Code Grabbing. Code grabbing tools also target the signal sent from the key fob to the vehicle. They enable the thief to record the signals sent from an RF key fob when the owner wishes to lock and unlock their vehicle. In doing so, these signals can be re-transmitted at a later time in order to gain access to the vehicle, without the need for the original key. This is a covert method that allows the thief to gain access to the vehicle without arousing any suspicion. The effectiveness of this tool is not limited to fixed code systems.
  • RF Blocking. RF blocking is the deliberate interference of the communication between the RF key fob and the vehicle usually without the driver being aware that the vehicle has not responded in the normal way. This can be achieved by using equipment that generates an RF signal, such as an electronic doorbell or garage door opener, or a specially designed tool that emits a continuous transmission to target a signal of a specific frequency. This is a highly effective method of preventing a driver from locking their vehicle and setting the alarm and is used all over the world. Legal restrictions exist which identify the frequency that a vehicle key fob must operate under and so thieves can target this frequency and ensure that the signal is blocked.

Despite the equipment described above being fairly advanced in its functionality, it would be a mistake to assume that the operation of these devices requires a high level of skill or expertise. Most of these devices require very little input from the user, with some requiring only to be connected to initiate the attack. They are simple to use and are highly effective, which makes them attractive to thieves.