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Thursday, December 16, 2021

How Hackers Use Trackers to Steal Cars

 By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy Pixabay

I was scanning the newsfeeds today when I happened upon an article posted on that featured a novel new use for Apple AirTags.  AirTags are designed to help you find things like lost keys and wallets when you misplace them.  That's all well and good if you're forgetful. However, the hi-tech web-enabled tracking devices are now being used in New York and elsewhere to tag luxury vehicles by car thieves.   That's right, car theft has gone digital.  I figured if it's happening in New York then it won't be long before this caper is introduced to Florida.  Here's what you need to know:

1. How does the caper work? - Car theft has always been a big problem, especially since car thieves have learned how to hack their way into late-model cars, light trucks, and SUV's.  (More on that later.)  While luxury cars can be purloined from any locale at any time of the day or night, savvy professional car thieves prefer to whisk vehicles away in the dead of night since that gives them the most time to conceal their efforts before the theft is reported to the police.  While thieves have been known to select and trail likely targets from places like shopping centers and office parks, technology has now made it child's play to play a grown-up game of tag by slipping or clipping a tracker like an AirTag onto a luxury vehicle, then use a smartphone app to track the vehicle home that night.  Unless the targeted vehicle is parked inside a garage, the thieves are in business.

2. How do thieves defeat a vehicle's onboard security system and ignition lockout? - If your vehicle features keyless entry, thieves can not only breach it to steal it, they can even reprogram the vehicle to lock you out.  That's what one hapless car owner who was a soldier stationed in Kuwait found out when his fiance went to check on his Infiniti sedan only to find it missing.  Using the Find My Car app to track it down, she discovered much to her surprise that the car's key no longer worked.  After discovering the vehicle which now sported a bogus license plate and summoning police, the fiance was startled when a stranger walked up to the car, opened the door, got in and drove off before the police arrived.  While she eventually managed to get the car back, it was soon stolen yet again.

3. Why are vehicles equipped with keyless entry vulnerable to theft? – Owners of vehicles with keyless entry never have to take their car key out of the pocket to either unlock the door or start the engine.  That's because the "key" used in a keyless entry system isn't a key at all.  It's actually a transmitter that emits a radio signal which is then picked up by a receiver in the vehicle.  To steal a luxury car, truck, or SUV equipped with a keyless entry system, all a thief has to do is employ a receiver/amplifier device known as a relay box to intercept the transmission sent out by the fob.  Placing the device close to your vehicle, the thief can then trick your car into thinking that your key is in the vicinity, which will in turn allow the thief to open the door and start the engine.  

4. What can you do to thwart these hi-tech thieves?  While car thieves have gotten sophisticated, all too many drivers haven't followed suit.  This means if you own a luxury vehicle, you need to take extra precautions to keep your ride from riding off into the sunset.

a. The best defense is to park your car in the garage.  If a thief can't get at the vehicle it can't be stolen.

b. If your vehicle comes equipped with keyless entry, don't leave the fob lying around your home or office.  While a thief may think twice about breaking into your home, he or she might not have to if you deposit the fob near a front window or door where its signal can be intercepted.  

c. Do what you can to block the signal emitted by the fob.  This can easily be accomplished by either purchasing a case that blocks RFID signals or by simply wrapping the fob in aluminum foil when it isn't being used.  

d. Add a secondary level of security to your vehicle.  While wheel locks aren't chic, they can prevent a thief from commandeering your vehicle even if they're able to gain entry and start the engine.

e. Fight tech with tech.  Install a tracking system and app that will enable you to track down your vehicle if it is stolen.

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more about saving money on all your insurance needs, check out her website at

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