Advice on how to prevent ‘relay attack’ thefts

A new trend in vehicle theft termed ‘relay attack’, is allowing criminals to overcome existing vehicle security technology, such as immobilisers and keyless entry systems. But what can you and your drivers do to prevent such attacks?

The new style attack uses a relay device and involves two criminals working together.

One thief stands near the car being targeted and the other stands near the front door of the owner’s home to get in range of the key fob, which are often left on hallway tables or kitchen worktops.

The relay device then picks up the key fob signal from inside the house and relays it to the car.

Using this method, thieves are then able to drive away in a stolen vehicle in a matter of just a few seconds.

The UK media has recently picked up on CCTV footage of the new trend, and shown how criminals are able to overcome existing vehicle security technology using a vulnerability in the vehicle’s keyless entry system.

Keyless fobs, which should not be confused with standard remote fobs, allow drivers to easily open and start their vehicle without pressing the fob or even having to remove it from their pocket.

The relay tools are readily available on the internet for as little as £80 and thefts typically occur in residential areas, where cars are parked relatively close to the house, especially at night.

Research in Germany, which tested vehicles from 30 manufacturers, found BMW and Peugeot were particularly susceptible.  However, using a relay device, testers managed to unlock many vehicles and start the engine, with the BMW 7 Series, Ford Focus, Toyota Prius and VW Golf among the most affected models of vehicle.

Over here, Thatcham Research, the motor insurers’ automotive research centre and experts in vehicle safety technology, vehicle security and crash repair, have been looking into the issue.

Chief technical officer, Richard Billyeald, said the centre was working closely with the police and vehicle manufacturers to combat the problem.

He said: “Keyless entry systems on cars offer convenience to drivers, but can in some situations be exploited by criminals. Concerned drivers should contact their dealer for information and guidance, and follow our simple security steps.”

Recent government data states that 91,000 vehicles were stolen in 2016, up from 70,000 in 2013. However, figures revealing the exact number of cars which have been compromised using the relay attack are not available, due to the way vehicle thefts are recorded.

Thatcham Research’s five security tips for drivers with keyless entry systems

  1. Contact your dealer and talk about the digital features in your car. Have there been any manufacturer software updates you can take advantage of to increase security?
  2. Check if your keyless entry fob can be turned off. If it can, and your dealer can also confirm this, then do so overnight.
  3. Store your keys away from household entry points. Keeping your keyless entry fob out of sight is not enough – thieves only need to gain proximity to the key to amplify its signal.
  4. Be vigilant. Keep an eye out for suspicious activity in your neighbourhood – and report anything unusual to the police.
  5. Review your car security. Consider aftermarket security devices such as Thatcham-approved mechanical locks and trackers, which are proven to deter thieves.


Car tracking and security specialist Tracker, has also published its own top tips on preventing keyless theft:

  1. Check it’s locked. Always double check that your car is physically secure and alarmed, when using keyless locking systems. Wait to see the flashing hazard lights confirm it’s locked. Thieves frequently lie in wait and block locking signals as owners walk away from their cars.
  2. Keep keys out of sight. Leaving keys in the hallway or on the kitchen worktop means thieves can break in and swipe them quickly, before driving off in your car. Put them in a drawer or out of sight in a bag, at least.
  3. Block electronic key fob signals. A faraday wallet is designed to shield electronic car keys from relay attacks – a new theft technique that involves extending a key fob’s signal by relaying it from one device to another. But you could also put them in a metal tin overnight to protect them from a relay attack.
  4. Add layers of security. Physical barriers can be effective in deterring thieves. Consider adding a crook lock or wheel clamp to your car. Alternatively, a driveway parking post or just locked gates can stop thieves in their tracks.
  5. Install a ‘ghost immobiliser’. For another layer of protection, add a secondary barrier to your car’s factory fitted immobiliser by having a unique access code to start your car.

If you would like any further information on this issue, please contact us on 0345 6018407.