Criminals finding ways to unlock cars without the key fob

Published: Aug. 17, 2018 at 4:50 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

Like millions of Americans, Eric Ellis uses a key fob to unlock his car. The device only works within a close range, but on surveillance video you can see two people walk into Ellis's driveway and unlock his vehicle without the fob. One of them tries to open up other cars, but it doesn't work.

"Everything from the glove box is sitting in the passenger seat so that's when I knew somebody had been in there," Ellis says.

Turns out the thieves only got away with some workout gear from Ellis's car, but police are seeing more cases where thieves open vehicles without a key.

"With all this new technology that the criminals are out there trying to defeat it," says Roger Morris with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

He says, in some cases, criminals are using an amplifying device. If a fob is inside the home, the amplifier can grab the signal, send it to another device and open the doors. To prevent it, you can keep your fob inside a metal box, aluminum foil or a Faraday bag – a pouch designed to protect electronics from signal interference.

"If you can block the radio-frequency of the device communicating to the vehicle then you can block the effectiveness of these."

But crooks have also figured out how to steal a fob's signal while you're using it. A recreation shows a driver getting out of his car and using the fob to lock it. Morris uses a relay box to intercept the fob's code. The code is then immediately sent to a second man with a small box that now acts as the vehicle's fob… allowing him to unlock the car, open the door, start the car and drive away.

"Cars are basically computers on wheels and anything that can defeat the computer system on the car is a very popular item among car thieves and hackers."

Morris says auto makers are aware of this hacking technology and are working on improvements to thwart it.