Technology

Keyless cars 'increasingly targeted by thieves using computers'

Range Rover Image copyright Range Rover
Image caption Range Rover said it was working with police to tackle those who re-programmed entry keys

Organised criminal gangs are increasingly targeting high-end cars with keyless security systems, a UK motoring industry group has warned.

The thieves are able to bypass security using equipment intended only for mechanics, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said.

Manufacturers are trying to stay ahead of the thieves by updating software.

It has been reported that some London-based owners of Range Rovers have been denied insurance over the issue.

The warnings echoed those made by the US National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), which earlier this year said it had seen a "spike" in car thefts involving equipment to spoof keyless entry.

Media captionWATCH: "Thieves are somehow getting access to the car's onboard computer"

Keyless entry and ignition typically works by the driver keeping a fob on their person which automatically opens the car and activates it so it can be driven.

As the popularity of keyless systems has increased, criminals have been buying equipment online that is able to re-programme keys.

"The criminal act of stealing vehicles through the re-programming of remote-entry keys is an on-going industry-wide problem," said Jaguar Land Rover.

"Our line-up continues to meet the insurance industry requirements as tested and agreed with relevant insurance bodies.

"Nevertheless we are taking this issue very seriously and our engineering teams are actively working in collaboration with insurance bodies and police forces to solve this continuously evolving problem."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Keyless ignition means drivers press a button to start a car

The statement added: "This has already resulted in a number of prosecutions."

A specific case reported by The Times involved insurers AIG refusing insurance cover to a motorist. In a statement the company said it treated every case individually.

"We do not have a blanket policy to exclude certain vehicles from cover.

"Given the increasing likelihood that replacement vehicles may be a target for thieves we may ask for additional security measures such as secure off-road parking.

"This could be, for example, secure private garaging or the installation of mechanically moveable bollards. If this is not possible then, as a last resort, we may refuse to offer insurance cover but only after exhausting every avenue."

Thatcham Research, which collates data on behalf of UK insurers, acknowledged the problem was widespread.

"Whilst BMWs and Audis appeared to be the early targets, it's fair to say that this was largely associated with their desirability across Europe, rather than any specific security lapse.

"Recently we've seen evidence of a range of makes and models being affected, including the Ford Fiesta and Focus, Range Rover Evoque and also now including light commercial vehicles such as the volume-selling Ford Transit and Mercedes Sprinter."

Weakest link

It is becoming much harder to steal cars. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, car theft has fallen from 318,000 in 2002 to 77,500 last year.

But thefts involving computer equipment used to circumvent security are rising. The SMMT is pushing for stronger legislation to help reverse this.

"The challenge remains that the equipment being used to steal a vehicle in this way is legitimately used by workshops to carry out routine maintenance," a spokesman said.

"As part of the need for open access to technical information to enable a flourishing after-market, this equipment is available to independent technicians. However a minority of individuals are exploiting this to obtain the equipment to access vehicles fraudulently.

"We need better safeguards within the regulatory framework to make sure this equipment does not fall into unlawful hands and, if it does, that the law provides severe penalties to act as an effective deterrent."

But Ian Crowder, from motorists' group the AA, warned the risk should not be overstated.

"By far the most common way of a car being stolen is still from thieves breaking into homes and stealing keys," he said.

"The keys are still the weakest link in a car security chain. If someone has your keys, they have your car."

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC

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