Motorists in South Africa with keyless-entry vehicles have several ways to protect their cars from thieves.
The South African Insurance Crime Bureau (SAICB) recorded a surge in thefts of newer SUVs in 2022, which included models with keyless entry and ignition features.
The rise in thefts of these vehicles has resulted in some insurers requiring that more than one tracker be installed in the worst-impacted models.
Keyless entry is a convenience-focused feature that lets motorists open and start a car by having its keyfob near the vehicle.
It eliminates the need to press a button on the fob, so you don’t have to fiddle in your pockets or handbag to take it out.
To achieve this, the fob or mobile device regularly sends out a short-range radio signal that the car is constantly scanning for to detect when it must lock or unlock doors.
Unfortunately, that attribute leaves the system open to relay attacks.
This is where signal amplifying and receiving equipment is used to hijack the fob signal and trick the car into thinking it is within its proximity.
A Carte Blanche investigation earlier this year shed light on the methods criminals typically used to carry out relay theft in South Africa.
Criminals typically operate in pairs. One carries the signal-amplifying equipment in a laptop bag or backpack, while the other keeps the signal-receiving equipment close to the targeted vehicle.
The first thief then follows the person with the fob after they exit the vehicle.
In areas with lots of people, like shopping malls, this is easy to do without arousing suspicions.
The signal-amplifying equipment captures the short-wave radio output sent out by the fob. The thief only has to be within a few metres of the fob for a couple of seconds.
It relays this to the signal-receiving equipment, without any action needed from the thief following the victim.
The received signal can then be replicated to fool the car into thinking the fob is nearby, allowing the second theft to open the door and drive away while the driver is still in the shops.
The fact that the thief does not have to break into the car or fiddle with locks also makes this easier to do without attracting attention from bystanders or parking lot security guards.
Carte Blanche’s investigation found that it was fairly easy to acquire the necessary equipment from the Internet, without having to go onto the dark web.
While there are numerous models susceptible to this type of theft, criminals in South Africa often target Toyota and Ford models, including the Fortuner, Hilux, and Ranger.
MyBroadband asked several major private security providers in South Africa for tips on protecting against keyless entry theft.
However, they said they did not want to share specific details about this form of crime with the public.
Fortunately, various vehicle insurance companies were willing to provide input.
King Price, Momentum, Naked, and Outsurance recommended that motorists turn off the keyless entry feature.
“Where possible, the keyless entry should be permanently deactivated,” said Outsurance chief client relations officer Natasha Kawulesar.
“For some vehicles, this may be done via the menu on the infotainment system or by taking the vehicle to the dealership for assistance.”
Other models might require pressing buttons on the fob in a particular sequence, which should be shown in the car’s manual.
If you don’t have this option or you still want the convenience of using keyless entry, all the aforementioned insurers and Santam advise placing your fob in a Faraday pouch.
“Always keep the keys of a vehicle with keyless entry in a Faraday pouch, whether it is in your handbag or in your hand,” Santam advised.
These pouches feature conductive metal lining that can block the radio waves transmitted by your keys, so the criminals cannot amplify them.
They can be bought from dealerships or online for as little as R150 from Marko and are compatible with a wide range of brands.
If you plan to take the key out of the Faraday pouch at home, it is best to store it in a metal box — like a cookie tin — that can also act as a Faraday cage.
Alternatively, you can place it far away from walls where criminals might be able to move to capture the signal.
It is also advisable to park your car as far away from the street as possible to make it more difficult for the signal receiver to get within range.
Some fobs now come with motion-sensing capabilities that disable their transmissions when left stationary for a long time.
However, this does not defeat the attack where thieves follow the victim with a signal amplifier, as the fob would continue sensing motion in such a case.