Tracking companies, insurers and other groups are sounding the alarm over a growing trend of criminals targeting and stealing keyless entry and push-start vehicles in South Africa, warning that syndicates are getting more tech-savvy, and motorists need to catch up.
Criminals can gain entry to these types of vehicles by effectively extending the range of the remote so that, once a driver is out of sight of a vehicle, someone else climbs in and drives away – all without any contact with the driver or awareness of it until they return to an empty parking spot.
The keyless access tactic involves a pair or team of criminals, one of whom could follow a newer model vehicle owner as they walk away from a locked vehicle.
Using a relay amplifier, a criminal can amplify the constantly transmitted signal received from the vehicle’s key fob to a criminal counterpart’s relay transmitter.
The criminal counterpart can then access the vehicle via the transmitter and drive away with it.
Chief executive officer of MasterDrive, Eugene Herbert, said that criminals typically wait for targets in parking lots carrying briefcases and backpacks and may not look like the stereotypical presumption of what a perpetrator looks like.
These criminals will follow their victim on their remote for a short distance to extend its range.
This type of crime is becoming more common, with some insurers now forcing owners of keyless and push-start vehicles to ensure they have tracking devices installed as a contingency.
Old Mutual Insure said drivers in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and smaller inland provinces are most at risk – particularly those driving high-end luxury vehicles and bakkies, which are frequently targeted.
“From our investigations, it appears that syndicates have found ways to seamlessly access vehicles with keyless entry systems. The theft rate is particularly high in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and some of our smaller inland provinces,” the group said.
Because of the technical nature of the crime, drivers have been left with limited options to protect their vehicles.
Herbert said that the typical precautions to avoid becoming a victim of hijackings and other crimes are still applicable – such as being aware of your surroundings and being vigilant to anyone you suspect is following you.
“Certain behaviours should raise concern in you,” he said.
“Be aware of the individuals around you. Those proceeding into a shop without waiting around, are likely innocent bystanders. If they seem to be waiting around for someone or hesitating for some reason, no matter how legitimate it may be, consider leaving and going to another store.”
If you do perceive them as harmless, do not lower your vigilance.
“Once in the store, still be on the lookout for them. Perhaps they are still waiting for you or elicited the help of someone else because these crimes are not committed alone. If you suspect someone is following you, stop and let them pass, then change your route. This creates a bit of a predicament for a suspicious person.
“We recommend calling police on your way to security who can return to your vehicle with you.”
Herbert said that current methods to protect vehicles from this specific crime trend are limited, however.
On top of increased awareness, other options include switching the role of the key and the car in this scenario, keeping a signal blocker in the vehicle or purchasing a signal-blocking pouch for your remote.
“The latter seems to be the most feasible and affordable in addition to increased awareness. Doing something such as switching the role of your key and car may affect things like warranties and should not be entered into without adequate research. Some vehicle manufacturers have made impressive headway to implementing solutions,” he said.
Vehicle tracking group Tracker – which identified this emerging trend late 2022 – said that motorists should be proactive and take steps to avoid becoming a victim. To combat keyless vehicle theft in particular, the group suggested using Faraday pouches (also known as a fob guard) to store your key fob.
“Lined with layers of metallic material, this pouch helps block key fob signals, thereby preventing criminals from intercepting the signal,” it said.
Herbert said that criminal syndicates evolve just as quickly as technology.
“As such never err from the basics that keep you and your belongings safe, and never assume new technology is invincible.”