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What is Car 'Relay Theft' and How Do I Protect Against It?

What is Car 'Relay Theft' and How Do I Protect Against It?

'Relay Attacks' are the latest way criminals are stealing our cars.  In a matter of seconds thieves can drive away your car without ever needing to touch the key.  Thankfully, there is a centuries old solution to this modern day problem ...

Four years ago, car theft was at an all time low, now over the past three years it has risen by 30%.  Sadly, no matter how many security features manufacturers develop and use in their vehicles, criminals will find a way to outsmart them.  Relay attacks are the next example of this process in motion.

What is a relay attack?

For a relay attack two thieves will be working together to steal one car.  One thief will walk close to the victim's house with a relay box until they pick up the signal emitted from their car key.  The other thief will be standing close to the car they intend to steal with their own relay box.  The signal picked up by the first relay box is transmitted to the second relay box close to the car.  This tricks the vehicle into thinking the key is nearby and so the doors open and the engine can be started. 

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Unfortunately the equipment needed for criminals to carry out a relay attack is cheap and easily available online on well nown sites such as Amazon and eBay.  The CCTV footage below released by West Midlands Police shows this whole process can take only a minute to complete.

Which cars are vulnerable to relay theft?

Not every car can be stolen using the relay theft method.  Vehicles which have a keyless entry and keyless go system are the ones at risk.  These are the cars with a key that only needs to be in close proximity to the car to open the door and start, there is never any need to remove the key from your pocket or handbag, or insert the key into the door lock or ignition.

These keys generally emit a radio frequency with a distinct digital identity code.  When this code is recognised by the car it responds by opening doors and allowing the engine to be started.  In relay theft it is this signal that is captured by the thieves relay boxes and used to take your car.    

How can I protect myself against relay theft?

The good news is there are some simple steps you can take to greatly reduce your chances of falling victim to a relay theft attack.  We will look at two of the most effective here, both are inexpensive and easy to use.

  1. Steering Wheel Lock - there aren't many people who didn't have one of these in the 90's and sales are soaring once again!  Even if the thief could get into your car and start the engine in a relay attack, they won't get very far without being able to steer.  This makes your car a much less attractive prospect to the thieves.
  2. Faraday Cage/Box - this device was first invented back in 1836 and will cost only a few pounds to buy and protect your car key from relay theft.

What is a Faraday Cage?

A Faraday Cage has the power to block signals such as those emitted by a car key. If the signal is blocked it can't be captured and used in a relay theft attack.  To do this the Faraday Cage needs a layer of material on the outside which conducts electricity.  As metal is a good conductor of electricity, this is the material that is most commonly used.  The metal is able to form a shield against static electric charges, electromagnetic radiation, radio waves and microwaves due to the way the tiny particles which make up the metal can move when in the presence of a charge.

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Although relay theft is a modern day problem, science from the 1800's can be used to reduce it.  The Faraday Cage was first invented by Michael Faraday all the way back in 1836.  Without knowing it you will have come across a Faraday Cage in your everyday life already.  For example, a microwave uses a metal exterior to keep all the microwaves inside to cook the food and make sure there is minimal radiation leaked out into the surrounding area.  Every time you are in a building and lose your internet connection or signal on your mobile phone it is likely you are experiencing the effects of a Faraday Cage.  If the building walls contain any pieces of metal such as wire mesh then a Faraday Cage can be created and you are forced to make that call outside!

A Faraday Cage and/or a steering wheel lock can be easily purchased and cost very little.  While these will by no means make your car unstealable, they will offer you an extra layer of protection against car thieves.

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