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Thieves will plug into your car’s onboard diagnostic port under the steering column. Then, use software, which is available online, to program a blank fob to start your car, according to police officers.Brian Kerrigan/The Globe and Mail

We have a 2019 SUV that has keyless ignition. My brother-in-law says it’s easy for thieves to steal because they can use the signal from the keyless fob to unlock and start the car while it’s in our driveway, even if the fob is inside the house. He says we need to keep fobs away from the front door or keep them in a shielded bag that blocks the signals. How worried should we really be about this? – Rita, Mississauga

Crooks could steal your fob signal to get into your car – but most don’t have to, police say.

“We’re getting a lot of thefts the old-fashioned way – by breaking into the vehicle,” said Mark Haywood, the detective in charge of the Peel Region Commercial Auto Crime Bureau.

Once they’re in, they disable the alarm system – on some cars that can be done with a screwdriver or “using a rod to rip off the horn,” he said.

After that, they do use tech, but not wireless.

They plug into your car’s onboard diagnostic port under the steering column. Then, use software, which is available online, to program a blank fob to start your car, Haywood said.

That’s different than a wireless relay attack, when thieves use a device to scan the signal from your keyless fob sitting inside the house – for instance, in your jacket next to the front door.

Then, they create a cloned fob that lets them get in your car and start it.

While wireless car hacks have received some media attention over the last few years, they’re not common, Haywood said.

“Cloning a key by capturing a radio signal does happen, but it doesn’t happen a lot,” he said. “[More than] 90 per cent are being stolen traditionally, by breaking in.”

Hot-wiring now history?

The tactics Haywood describes tend to be used by organized crime rings to steal newer cars, he said.

“With organized crime, it’s more of the newer vehicles – Lexus RX 350s, Toyota Tacomas and RAV4s, Honda CR-Vs – because they’re garnering so much money overseas right now in places like Nigeria,” Haywood said. “Within a day of getting stolen – and within an hour sometimes – they’re already in a cargo container.”

Less sophisticated thieves either hot-wire models older than 2007 – when Transport Canada started requiring engine immobilizers that require a key or fob to start the car – or, they somehow get a key.

For instance, they might find a car warming up in a driveway with keys in it, steal keys from a locker, purse or backpack or find the keys in your house during a break-in.

In December, the Équité Association, an anti-fraud non-profit established by a group of Canadian insurance companies, released a list of the cars that were stolen most in 2021.

Nationally, nine of the ten cars on the list – which includes 2018 Ford pickups and the 2018 Honda CR-V – were built after 2007.

To start newer cars, thieves either need keys or they need tech.

“Tech is definitely a factor now when it comes to the theft of higher-end vehicles,” said Bryan Gast, Èquitè's vice president of investigative services.

If the cars aren’t recovered, it can be tough for police and insurance investigators to figure out how they were stolen, he said.

How thieves are stealing cars varies across the country.

Montreal police said thieves there most commonly use wired tech – they plug into the diagnostic port and clone a key.

But police in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver said the majority of newer car thefts involve access to keys.

“We’re aware of the possibility of relay thefts using range extenders to boost a key fob signal, but we’re not seeing evidence of it yet in [British Columbia],” said Inspector Rob Vermeulen, the officer in charge of the Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team (IMPACT) in B.C.

In B.C., the majority of stolen cars are typically pre-2007 models without an immobilizer, Vermeulen said.

“They’re stolen the old-fashioned way, by tampering with the ignition,” he said. “Some of these vehicles are then used to commit other crimes, or in some cases just used as transportation and dumped.”

Low-tech deterrents?

If you’re worried about wireless theft, you can keep your keyless fobs away from doors or windows. Or, you can keep them in a Faraday bag, which blocks wireless signals, when you’re not using them.

But there are simple ways to make your car less alluring to thieves, Peel Region’s Haywood said.

“I would say most thefts are avoidable,” he said. “If you have a high-end vehicle, park it in the garage, if you have one.”

Old-school tech – like The Club steering wheel lock or a wheel boot – can deter high-tech thieves, Haywood said. You can also get a lock for the onboard diagnostic port.

“The Club is easily defeated, but it’s an extra hassle they have to deal with,” he said.

Toronto police said to never leave your keys in your vehicle, park in well-lit areas and, if you’re parked at home, use motion sensor lights or a security camera pointing at the vehicle.

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