5 ways to combat high-tech car thieves

Auto thieves using frequency jammers and key programmers present a new challenge for police

In years past, the typical car thief’s tools of the trade were a “slim jim” strip for the door lock, a screwdriver or punch drill for the steering wheel lock, and/or what one of my police colleagues called a “BFR” (big f***ing rock). 

The thief shimmed the door and hot-wired the ignition, or just stole items from the interior. They usually weren’t very sophisticated or even very bright, and finding them in possession of any of these tools was good PC for an arrest. 

Now that most of us lock our cars with electronic key fobs, the car thief community has risen to the challenge. 

Momentarily, a Mystery
Police in the U.S. and elsewhere were momentarily stymied when cars the owners knew they had locked were either being burgled or stolen outright. When the theft was discovered, there was no damage to the doors, windows, or ignition system. 

It was like the thief had his own key. 

In some cases, that’s exactly what happened. These thefts are possible through the use of frequency jammers that block the signal from the key fob to the car, and key programmers that make new computer-compatible keys in the spot, using the coding already onboard in the car. 

The scheme works like this: the car’s owner parks the car, exits, and presses the button on the key fob to lock all the doors and set the vehicle’s anti-theft system remotely. 

Or, at least he thinks he does. Most cars sound the horn and flash the lights briefly to indicate the lock signal has been received, but the owner may not notice he didn’t hear the chirp, or thought it was masked by traffic noise. 

In actuality, the signal never reached the car, because it was blocked by a signal jammer located somewhere nearby. The thief buys one of these from an offshore dealer for $100-$300, and waits in a likely area for his prey to arrive. He turns on the jammer and waits for the owner to walk away, thinking his car is secured. 

When the coast is clear, the thief approaches the car and enters it, which is easy because it’s unlocked. He may just go through the interior, trunk, and glove box looking for valuables, or if he is more sophisticated and prepared, he moves on to ‘step two.’ 

Key Fob Programmers
This requires another electronic marvel, also available from offshore dealers. Key programmers are used by legitimate locksmiths and vehicle service technicians to make a duplicate key when the owner loses the one(s) that came with the car. 

They’re available in the U.S., but most of the stateside dealers ask too many questions — such as “Are you a car thief?” — so thieves get their hardware elsewhere. 

The thief plugs the programmer into the onboard diagnostic connector port that nearly all cars come equipped with these days, and the programmer reads the key code already loaded into the car’s computer. The code is transferred onto the tiny chip embedded in the new key, and the thief uses this to steal the car. 

The radio frequency jammers are illegal for use in the United States — and most other industrialized countries — as they transmit on a frequency the operator is not licensed for. However, if you’re buying the device to commit felonies, this probably isn’t much of a deterrent. 

Auto manufacturers will probably come up with a better theft deterrent eventually, but cars with today’s anti-theft technology will be on the road for years to come. 

From a crime investigation and prevention perspective, here’s what you can do:

1.)    Urge citizens to ensure they see and hear the cues their car gives when the lock signal has been received. Don’t just assume it got there. 
2.)    Advise citizens to bypass the remote locking system and lock the doors manually with a key. The jammers block the signal from the key fob to the car, but they can’t unlock the doors without the appropriate code. 
3.)    Advise citizens to be wary of people loitering in parking areas who may be operating jammers. If they see suspicious people, call the police. 
4.)    If you stop a suspected car thief, see if he has the electronic key fob that matches the car. One looks like another, so actually push the buttons to see if this one is mated with the car. 
5.)    Look for radio jammers. They’re usually plastic or metal boxes, roughly the size and shape of a portable two-way radio, and will have one to four “rubber ducky” antennas on them. The only controls may be a power switch. If you find one of these, consider calling the FCC to see if they want to get involved. 

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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