What is relay theft and how can I avoid it?

What is relay theft and how can I avoid it?

With the rise of keyless entry technology, thieves have found a new way to steal cars in mere minutes. These keyless car thefts are commonly called relay thefts or relay attacks.

According to ONS data, there was a 24.9% year-on-year increase in the number of vehicles stolen in England and Wales between 2021 and 2022. Unfortunately, experts anticipate that this number will only increase as more and more people buy new cars that feature keyless entry technology. 

But why are these vehicles so vulnerable to theft, and how can you avoid becoming a victim if you have a keyless entry car? Keep reading to discover what relay car theft is, how it works, and what you can do to improve home or business security and keep your vehicle safe.

What is relay theft?

Relay car theft is a type of vehicle theft where criminals steal cars with keyless entry by using this technology against itself. As such, relay theft only applies to cars that feature keyless entry, as this technology enables thieves to trick the system into thinking they have a key with them. This means criminals can quickly and easily steal your vehicle without having to swipe your keys first or force entry.

Keyless entry

Keyless entry technology has become increasingly popular over the past few years, with many new cars featuring this technology as standard. Lots of people prefer keyless entry cars because of their convenience – instead of having to press a button on a key fob and turn the key in the ignition to start their car, drivers can now simply walk up to their cars with their key in their pocket or bag. Once the key is within a few metres of the car, it will automatically unlock. The driver can then get in their car and start it by pressing the ‘start’ button – without touching or moving their keys at all.

Keyless entry systems are also favoured by manufacturers due to their safety benefits. Using this system means the bulky lock barrel can be removed from the car’s steering column, reducing the risk of knee injuries in car crashes. Ultimately, keyless entry technology was introduced to make our lives easier and safer, but one unfortunate side effect is that these systems can be quite simple to trick in relay attacks.

How does a relay attack work?

To steal a keyless entry car, criminals use its technology against itself by tricking the keyless entry system into thinking the key fob is within range. 

To perform the relay theft, there will be two criminals working together. One criminal will stand near your key fob with a device that tricks the key into broadcasting its signal. If you store your car keys in your hallway, a criminal could stand close to your house at night to try to pick up the signal from the keys inside. 

The criminal’s device then relays your key’s signal to a second criminal standing next to your car. The second criminal will also have a device that can pick up and relay these signals, allowing them to relay the signal from your key to your car. This tricks the keyless entry system in your car into thinking that the key is nearby, causing it to unlock. The criminal can then get inside, press the ‘start’ button, and drive away without your keys.

All of this can happen within just a few minutes. Since the thieves won’t have to force entry, you probably won’t hear or see anything happening until your car has already been driven away.

Which vehicles are vulnerable to relay theft?

These hacking devices can easily be bought online. It’s no wonder that car theft has increased so much considering how simple it is for criminals to access and use these devices.

Plus, any keyless entry vehicle is at risk. Although more expensive cars like high-end Range Rovers are more commonly targeted, any car could be stolen if it’s left in an insecure location and your keys aren’t protected (more on this below). Vans are also frequently targeted by criminals because of the potential value of tools left inside.

How can I avoid becoming a relay car theft victim?

If you have a keyless entry car, the information in this article will be very worrying. Luckily, there are multiple precautions you can take to avoid becoming a victim of relay theft:

1. Keep your car keys away from walls, doors and windows

Many people keep their car keys in their hallway, but this may be too close to the exterior of your home – at night, a criminal could approach your home under cover of darkness and be within range of your key‘s signal. Always keep your keys far away from exterior walls, doors and windows to ensure that no one could be within range outside.

2. Use a signal-blocking sleeve or pouch

An even better precaution is to store your car keys in a Faraday pouch or sleeve when you’re not using them. A Faraday pouch contains a layer of metal mesh, creating a small Faraday cage. This blocks electromagnetic signals such as those emitted by your key fob, which means your key fob can’t transmit its signals while it’s in the pouch. By storing your keys in a Faraday sleeve at night, you’ll prevent criminals from being able to detect and relay the signal – just remember to take the keys out of the pouch when you want to get in your car!

3. Store your keys in a metal container

If you don’t have a Faraday pouch, you can achieve a similar effect by putting your keys in a metal container at night – even your microwave or fridge will work! If you have a spare metal tin at home, this could be a great place to store your key fob (as long as you remember where it is).

4. Install a steering wheel lock

To prevent criminals from driving away in your car, you could install a steering wheel lock. Although this won’t stop them from potentially getting into your car, they won’t be able to actually drive it. This could be an effective solution for your car, but if you have a van with valuable tools inside, this won’t prevent criminals from breaking into it and stealing what’s inside.

5. Install a ghost immobiliser

Factory-fitted immobilisers have been mandatory since 1998, but this feature on its own isn’t enough to keep your car safe from relay attacks. Car immobilisers work by preventing your car from starting without the right key or key fob being present, but thieves can bypass this in a relay theft by copying your key’s signals.

If you have a keyless entry car, you may need to install a ghost immobiliser for extra security. A ghost immobiliser includes systems that prevent signal jamming and device spoofing, and it also gives you a unique access code to start your car. Therefore, any unauthorised people won’t be able to start your car and drive away.

6. Park your car in your garage

If you have a garage, you should always park your car inside it instead of leaving it outside. Criminals can’t target your car if they can’t see or access it.

However, if you don’t have a garage, there are still ways you can park your car more securely. Try to park as close to your home as you can, as criminals may then be nervous about being spotted or lit up by your porch lighting. If you have two cars, make sure you park the more expensive vehicle behind the less expensive one as it’s more likely to be targeted. 

Another option is to install driveway gates to make your driveway more secure. You can also add access control features to your gate, including keypad entry and an intercom system.

7. Add a tracking device to your car

Although a tracking device won’t prevent your car from being stolen, it can help the police recover it in the unfortunate event that you become a victim of relay theft. You can find a wide range of GPS car trackers online.

8. Get car insurance

If your car is stolen, you don’t want to be left out of pocket. Always make sure that your car is insured and that you opt for comprehensive cover. Plus, you should double-check that your car is locked and parked securely at night, since failing to take proper precautions can mean that your claim is denied.

9. Improve security

Finally, make sure you pay attention to your home security (or business security if you’re worried about business vehicles on your commercial property). For domestic properties, you can install driveway gates, access control systems, outdoor cameras and comprehensive home security systems. For commercial properties, you can install industrial gates, CCTV, automatic bollards and much more to deter trespassers.

Need more security advice? Visit the Expert Security blog for more information on how to keep your home and business safe.