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Keyless cars: What are they, how do they work and how can you prevent theft? We reveal all as record numbers are stolen

By Ted Welford | November 28, 2023

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Keyless cars continue to be at risk from theft with last year's figures showing a 59% increase

Keyless cars: What are they, how do they work and how can you prevent theft? We reveal all as record numbers are stolen

Keyless cars continue to come under scrutiny for their – in some instances – flawed security. 

While a good idea in principle, crooks have been able to manipulate the software and gain access to keyless cars to steal them. The problem isn’t going away either with the most recent from LV Insurance showing a 59% rise in 2023 compared to 2022.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has this week announced it is spending £10m to upgrade the security of its older cars to help combat keyless theft, with Range Rovers among some of the most stolen vehicles on UK roads. 

It is by no means a problem exclusive to JLR though, with news over the weekend of a brand-new keyless Rolls-Royce Cullinan being stolen from a driveway in Essex.

So let’s take a look at what keyless cars are, how they work and how you can help prevent them from being stolen.

What are keyless cars?

There are two main types of ‘keyless’ cars – keyless start and keyless entry. The first is where you still physically have to unlock the car, but once you’re in, you just have to press a button to start the car.

The second is more common, and that’s keyless entry. It means that if you approach a keyless car with the fob in your pocket, the vehicle will automatically open without the need to press any buttons.

How do keyless cars work?

Keyless cars work using short-range radio waves. The key transmits a signal, which is then picked up by a receiver in the car. Once this is recognised, the car will unlock and you’ll be able to start the vehicle. 

The vehicle will not unlock unless the right signal is recognised, meaning it’s only your ‘keyless’ car key that can be used. Similarly, once you park the car it can recognise that the key is outside the vehicle and it will lock. Sometimes this is automatic, but for others, you have to press a button on the door handle. 

How have thieves been able to steal keyless cars? 

Keyless cars have been victims of a sharp rise in theft because crooks have worked out how to manipulate these signals. 

Once thieves spot your car – usually on a driveway or somewhere the keys are likely to be close by – they are able to try and commit something known as ‘relay theft’. 

One person will stand near the front of your house, or walk around the location with the aim of picking up a signal, with an amplifier. If this is successfully picked up, another person will be standing next to the car and using a transmitter is able to pick up this signal. 

When this happens, some keyless entry systems are activated, meaning the car is unlocked and even started. Before you know it, the vehicle can be stolen from you.

What can you do to stop a keyless car from being stolen?

There are various things that you can do to avoid keyless car theft, with the first being practical measures relating to where the car is parked. 

If you have an option to put a vehicle in a garage, or out of sight from the road, you should do this. Many keyless car thefts are planned after someone drives past and sees a desirable car that could be stolen – keyless Fords, Volkswagens and Land Rovers are some of the most common. 

Physical deterrents can also stop thefts, with a manual steering lock being particularly common at putting off thieves. You could also look at installing a bollard blocking the vehicle when it’s parked at home.

Depending on the value of your car, you could look at fitting a ‘ghost’ immobiliser, which is where a series of buttons need to be pressed inside the car before it can be started. You could also have a tracker fitted, meaning that if the vehicle is taken you have a much higher chance of it being recovered. 

After this, think about the keys themself. Many keyless cars allow you to deactivate the ‘keyless’ feature, which is ideal for when a vehicle is parked overnight. Keep your car keys as far away from doors where the signals are most likely picked up, while one of the easiest methods is to keep the keys in a ‘Faraday pouch’ which blocks out signals. These can degrade over time, however, so it’s worth checking these pouches are still working on a regular basis by standing next to the car while the keys are in these pouches. 

But while all these steps are important to deterring thieves, you should never risk your own well-being by endangering yourself. Cars are insured and can be replaced, and are not worth risking injury by trying to stop thieves from taking a vehicle. 

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