How thieves bypass modern vehicle security

Technology is rapidly changing to prevent vehicle break-ins, but what techniques are thieves evolving in response? And what can car owners do to guard against these high-tech crimes?

Life is not like grand theft auto. Criminals cannot simply walk up to a car and drive it off. Equally the days of smashing a window and hot wiring cars are well and truly over. According to crime figures, the amount of cars stolen reached a 50-year all time low in 2015, with 69,547 vehicles being taken in an unauthorised manner. However, thieves know that they only have to find vulnerability in any type of vehicle and they can exploit this endlessly to steal as many of this make and model as possible. And they are getting better all the time at bypassing countermeasures like alarms and immobilisers.

What are these new techniques, how do they work, and more importantly what steps can vehicle owners take to thwart the thieves in their tracks, stopping them from driving off with a stolen car?

Cloning key fobs

What happens when you lose your car keys with the transponder system on them? You call a locksmith and they now make a new key for your vehicle. While technology isn’t available to everyone, you can find information about how to make cloned keys readily on the internet. Thieves, therefore, often target locksmiths to gain access to the systems to duplicate car access tools.

Additionally, thieves are using booster signals that could use a signal from your key to fool your car into thinking that the engine has been turned on and authorisation granted for the front doors.

How to prevent this hack

Unfortunately there are very few counter-measures that can prevent a determined thief from using this hack. Experts say that placing your key fob in the freezer may help to a certain extent, but the only sure-fire way to stop criminals from using boosters is to place them in a faraday cage. This fine wire cage dissipates all electrical signals and stops boosters from working.

Jamming

Although it sounds like something out of a science fiction film, criminals could actually block the signal travelling from your wireless key fob to your car. This means that when you think you’ve managed to lock your car, and it’s sitting safely on your driveway or in a car park, it could actually be wide open for anyone to jump in and steal.

This type of crime is on the rise, with jamming devices now available on the open market for as little as £35, making this an incredibly accessible form of car crime. There have already been crime reports of thieves being reprimanded with these devices in large city centres including Manchester.

How to prevent this hack…

The motoring industry is advising people to double check their locks before leaving their vehicles, particularly when parked in large public car parks. It may seem like a simple step, but don’t take it for granted that your key fob has worked, even if you hear the familiar noises you associate with the vehicle locking. This one is a good old fashioned case of vigilance beating the potential thieves.

Scanners

Another way of duplicating a car’s entry system is with a scanner box that allows you to capture code and send it through to the locking system, as if it was sent by the key fob unit. Some of the more advanced systems could even be used to start an engine, although this practice has yet to be uncovered by the police. Fortunately, although such devices are in existence, few people have been caught using them.

That’s not to say that scanning devices won’t be on the rise in years to come. As with all technologies, it is possible that scanners will become smaller and easier to use, making it difficult for the authorities to notice potential thieves in car parks and streets. As this is such a new system, it is hard to predict how much of a problem it might become.

How to prevent this hack…

Older models of car will always be easier to steal than newer vehicles and therefore it’s good to keep on upgrading your vehicle with the dealer if you’re the type of driver who prefers a lease arrangement. This way you will effectively stay one step ahead of the thieves. Equally manufacturers may well make chip and software updates available for your vehicle that resolve any vulnerabilities in the system, so it pays to keep on top of news for your particular make and model.

Defeating the immobiliser

Apparently, a large number of immobiliser chips featured in hundreds of makes and models of car have a vulnerability that can be exploited with scanning technology. Thieves listen in on the signals between your car and the locking system and with the help of a little technology in half an hour they can disarm the immobiliser, taking away one of the vital security barriers stopping them from stealing your vehicle.

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How to prevent this hack…

You can find out if your car is one of those that have the specified chip in it with a very simple search on the internet. While this will not deter potential criminals, it will let you know to be a little more observant as to who might be lurking around in your local area.

Thieves need to listen to two signals in order to break the encryption on the code that’s sent to your car. This means that scammers are more likely to try this in residential areas than car parks, so as to ever keep a vigilant watch for strangers in your area, particularly people in stationary vehicles who seem to be waiting around for no reason.

Taking over your car

While not so much about robbery, it does seem that some whizkids out there understand how to use signals from DAB radio to take control of certain vehicles’ remote navigation systems. Experiments were run by prominent technology blogs that proved that these vehicles could be completely hijacked and driven off.

Whilst this type of crime doesn’t currently show up on police radars, there’s a chance that robberies like this may be something we’ll have to deal with in the future. Carjacking could become a real problem, with occupants being driven to remote locations where they’ll be relieved of their vehicle.

How to prevent this hack…

Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be too much you can do to prevent this kind of crime, save for placing some of your car’s systems in a lead box, which will unfortunately defeat its ability to resolve your navigation difficulties. The best advice is probably not to purchase one of the vehicles that suffers from this vulnerability, by ensuring you fully research any car you’re thinking of owning.

Vehicle analytics

You know how Facebook and Google are watching your habits on the internet to work out your buyer behaviour? Imagine if your vehicle started doing the same thing. Self-driving cars will gain a whole load of data about your personal habits. Where you go, who you see and what time you like to do things. And no doubt somewhere this information will be used to market goods and services to you.

Whilst the manufacturers and tech companies will argue that this allows them to streamline a better consumer experience for their customers, will it translate to endless targeted advertising on your radio and your vehicle trying to suggest new restaurants to you as you drive down the road?

How to prevent this hack…

Whilst not really a crime, many people feel uncomfortable about this unspoken form of surveillance and would rather that the larger data companies stopped looking into their lives. Fortunately, the software on smart cars and self-drive vehicles may well feature opt-out clauses that prevent information harvesting. If so, details on how to do this will be readily available in a quick Google search, strangely enough.

A final word

It’s always good to have an attitude of proactive checks to ensure that your vehicle is safe and there’s nothing wrong with using steering wheel locks and handbrake locks to make your car a little less of a target, as many thieves are opportunists. Don’t forget that even unauthorised access is often frustrating, especially when you leave a laptop or phone in the car only to find it is gone due to a smashed window in the morning.

Be safe. Better to check the door handles of your car twice than to find yourself having to deal with the inconvenience of making an insurance claim and running around with taxis and courtesy cars. Whilst you cannot stop a very determined thief, you can make it incredibly difficult for them to steal your car.

My Geelly car has gear problem. Which other manual gear can I use for the car as its manual gear is expensive?

I believe Gelly brand carries Mitsubishi power train system; you can ask your mechanic to research on it.

What could have caused my timing belt of Honda Accord 1997 model to break affecting my top cylinder components? —Ogunbanwo.

Timing belt is a part that needs to be replaced at intervals of every 40,000 miles. If it is neglected it could break and cause damage to the engine, but I believe Honda is a non-interference engine. Now that the engine has been affected only your mechanic can tell the extent of damage and what needs to be done.

I drive a Golf 3 Wagon 1996 model, American specification with 2.0 engine injector. But the engine was giving me problem and my mechanic advised me to change the engine to 1.8 with electric carburetor, which I did and I change it with the gear completely. After installing the 1.8 engine then, the gear was not changing hence the electrician (rewire) that worked on it later discovered it was the gear brain box. I changed the gear brain box too… now the new brain box is changing but it’s delaying before it changes. Also, I hear some sparking noise from the brain box like it’s having partial contact. Please I need your help. Adebowale

What you need is a good technician that has the understanding of the wiring system of VW. Also I believe some of the sensor of the 1.8 engine is calibrated differently from the 2.0 engine. You might have to revert to the original system to actually enjoy the car.

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Is there a proper tool or instrument like scanner to detect and isolate gas leakage in auto air-conditioner? I’m currently experiencing a series of guesswork on related challenges. Advise me on such instrument and location workshop. Olayide.

There are different types of leak detectors for A/C system.

I have a Volkswagen CC 2009 which has been giving me issues with the throttle body for some time now.

I’ve changed the throttle body twice with fairly used ones and it works for some months before the EPC light comes on again and the engine starts misfiring. Anonymous

All auto scan done points to the throttle body. I called your Abuja office but they don’t have the new part. Bimbo

Please, let your mechanic do the re-adaptation of the system before changing any other parts. Anytime you replace or work on VW powertrain, it is better you re-adapt the system or else you keep having the same problem.

My 1997 model Primera’s auto gear was repaired after being scanned. It now selects well but delays a bit before changing gear from 1 to 2. What can I do? Anonymous.

I have a feeling the kick-down cable is not adjusted, let it be adjusted and the fault will be resolved.

Generic codes

P0506: Idle control system lower than expected.

The engine control module controls the engine idle speed to a specified level through the fine adjustment of the air, which is let into the intake manifold, by operating the electric throttle control actuator.

The operating of the throttle valve is varied to allow for optimum control of the engine idling speed. The ECM calculates the actual engine speed from signals of crankshaft position sensor and camshaft position sensor.

The ECM controls the electric throttle control actuator so that the engine speed coincides with the target value memorised in the ECM. The target engine speed is the lowest speed at which the engine can operate steadily. The optimum value stored in the ECM is determined by taking into consideration various engine conditions, such as during warming up, deceleration, and engine load (air conditioner, power steering and cooling fan operation, etc.)

Note: If there are no intake leaks, clean throttle body, adjust engine idle and erase engine code. If the code comes back you may have to replace the electric throttle control actuator to repair the problem.

When is the code detected?

The idle speed is less than the target idle speed by 100 rpm or more.

Possible symptoms

Engine light on (or service engine soon warning light)

Engine hard to start

Rough or erratic idle speed

Possible causes

Dirty throttle body

Electric throttle control actuator misadjusted or damaged

Faulty electric throttle control actuator

Intake air leak

Poor electrical connection to the intake air control valve

P0507: Idle control system higher than expected.

The engine control module controls the engine idle speed to a specified level through the fine adjustment of the air, which is let into the intake manifold, by operating the electric throttle control actuator. The operating of the throttle valve is varied to allow for optimum control of the engine idling speed. The ECM calculates the actual engine speed from signals of crankshaft position sensor and camshaft position sensor.

The ECM controls the electric throttle control actuator so that the engine speed coincides with the target value memorised in the ECM. The target engine speed is the lowest speed at which the engine can operate steadily. The optimum value stored in the ECM is determined by taking into consideration various engine conditions, such as during warming up, deceleration, and engine load (air conditioner, power steering and cooling fan operation, etc.)

Note: If there are no intake leaks, clean throttle body, adjust engine idle and erase engine code. If the code comes back you may have to replace the electric throttle control actuator to repair the problem.

When is the code detected?

The idle speed is more than the target idle speed by 200 rpm or more.

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