A rise in keyless vehicles is fuelling a car crime ‘epidemic’ across Britain, police officials fear.
Offences have nearly tripled in the worst-hit areas as thieves exploit the technology to steal vehicles from car parks and driveways.
One senior official said hacking cars was now ‘child’s play’, with criminals able to get in and drive off in just 30 seconds.
After more than a decade of decline, car thefts have surged in the past three years – up by 189 per cent in Warwickshire, 59 per cent in Hampshire, 57 per cent in West Yorkshire and 56 per cent in Norfolk.
It comes as keyless technology, once the preserve of expensive high-end vehicles, has become commonplace among more affordable family cars.
Earlier this week, Cleveland Police said it had received 90 reports of keyless cars being stolen since December, and half of them were Ford Fiestas – the country’s best-selling vehicle of the past decade.
Keyless technology is designed to increase convenience for motorists as it typically means they need just a small fob to unlock their cars, and can drive by pressing an ignition button.
But criminals are exploiting this with devices such as relay boxes, available to buy cheaply on Amazon and eBay for as little as £260.
In the footage, one of the men waved a box, which then received a signal from the key inside the home and transmitted it to a second box held next to the car
These gadgets let criminals pick up the signal from a car’s keyless fob lying inside the owner’s home, and extend this signal to unlock the car and start it. The vehicle’s security system is tricked into thinking the key fob is present.
Offenders have been caught on camera strolling up driveways, before holding the devices against the car owner’s front door.
Criminals are also targeting car parks with a gadget that blocks the signal when a driver tries to use a fob to lock their vehicle. This leaves the car open for thieves.
Warning to check doors are really locked
Thieves are targeting car parks with devices that block key fob signals, fooling drivers into believing their cars are locked, police say.
When the victim thinks they are securing their car by pressing the fob, the jamming gadget intercepts the signal, ensuring the vehicle remains unlocked.
The owner would spot this only if they physically checked by trying to open the car door.
But if they walk away without noticing, the thieves can jump in and steal whatever’s inside.
In some car models, the criminals can also start the vehicle using another device.
Detectives say thieves will often take the stolen cars – particularly cheaper models such as Ford Fiestas – straight to illegal ‘chop’ houses.
These are illicit garages where the cars are taken to bits so the spare parts can be sold on.
Car manufacturers have urged owners of keyless cars to double check their cars are locked before walking away.
One device which can be used to steal keyless cars – the HackRF One – is on sale on Amazon for £260.29 and available on eBay for £278.77.
Manufacturers insist cars are more secure than ever, but police are urging drivers to buy old-fashioned steering wheel locks, and even to store fobs in biscuit tins or special cases to protect them.
David Jamieson, police and crime commissioner for the West Midlands, said the number of car thefts in his force had doubled in just two years.
Mr Jamieson, a former transport minister, blamed the increase in keyless security systems. ‘Car thefts have doubled in two years – that’s an epidemic,’ he said.
‘The West Midlands has probably experienced the biggest rise in the country outside [London], but this problem is getting worse everywhere with big urban areas.
‘This is making our lives really difficult. It’s sucking up loads of police time that should be dealing with other more serious crime.’
Mr Jamieson rejected motor industry claims that cars have never been more secure.
‘At the moment it’s kid’s play … it takes 30 to 40 seconds to get in and off you go,’ he added.
He said criminals were increasingly targeting modest vehicles such as Ford Fiestas, Focuses and Transit vans, which can be sold off or broken up in illegal ‘chop’ house garages for parts.
Keyless systems have been available on Ford cars since 2008 and now come with almost all models.
Ford insists the figures do not suggest its cars are being targeted. But an analysis from West Midlands Police reveals that although Fords represent 13.7 per cent of cars registered in the region, they account for around a quarter of the cars stolen.
Car thefts had declined for a decade as manufacturers introduced immobilisers, alarm systems and tracking devices to stop criminals from hotwiring cars. But the offence has soared by almost a third in just three years in England and Wales. The latest figures, released by 40 police forces after Freedom of Information requests by the RAC, showed 85,688 vehicles stolen in 2016, up 30 per cent from 65,783 in 2013.
More vehicles are stolen in London than anywhere else in the UK with 26,496 reported to the Metropolitan Police in 2016. This represented a 29 per cent increase on 2013 when 20,565 were stolen. West Yorkshire Police reported 5,597 thefts – 57 per cent more than in 2013. Greater Manchester Police revealed 4,999 vehicles were stolen in 2016, a 29 per rise from 2013. Essex saw the same percentage rise in car theft, up to 3,623.
Criminals are exploiting keyless cars with devices such as relay boxes (pictured), available to buy cheaply on Amazon and eBay for as little as £260. The signals from the box can travel through buildings, meaning thieves can open cars without needing to break into properties to steal keys
Of the 40 police forces, only five reported a fall in car theft.
Graham McNulty, National Police Chiefs Council lead for vehicle crime, has cited keyless car theft as one of the reasons for the rise in the number of cars stolen.
Other factors include an increase in organised criminal gangs exporting cars and an increase in motorcycle and scooter theft.
Mr Jamieson said manufacturers should take much of the blame. He said: ‘The attitude among car manufacturers is this is a police problem … But we are working with strict budgets … Manufacturers have got to put some of their profits into looking after car owners after they have bought them.’ He said firms that fail to commit to more action to protect car owners will be ‘named and shamed’, with their stolen car numbers released by West Midlands Police.
‘We will say to car manufacturers, “If you sell keyless cars it’s your responsibility to help owners protect it”. They need to look at better systems that can be retrofitted … [and give] them big discounts on steering wheel locks.’
Halfords said sales of steering wheel locks had soared by more than half since last summer. It has also begun selling anti-theft fob wallets for drivers of keyless cars.
Mike Hawes, of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said: ‘New cars are more secure than ever and the latest technology has helped bring down theft dramatically – which is why less than 0.3 per cent of the vehicles on our roads are stolen today.’
But he also called for ‘stronger safeguards to prevent the sale of cloning technologies, signal blocking and other devices’.
A Ford spokesman said: ‘Ford Motor Company takes vehicle security seriously and continuously invests in technology to deter theft of, and from, our vehicles. Fords are sold with competitive levels of standard security equipment.
‘The Ford Fiesta is Britain’s best-selling car and every new Fiesta comes with an immobiliser, preventing “hot wiring” as the engine will only run when the correct key is present.’
Warwickshire Police recorded an 189 per cent rise in car theft over the three-year period – the biggest percentage increase – although just 275 cars were stolen, the third lowest tally in the country.