Under cover of darkness, two hooded figures approach a house in Billericay, Essex. One waves a laptop-sized device by the front door while the other holds a similar object near the £40,000 Mercedes-Benz parked on the drive.
The latter then nonchalantly opens the driver’s door and drives away while the first man departs in a getaway vehicle. The theft of the luxury car has taken 23 seconds. No picking of locks, smashing of windows or stealing a car key have been necessary.
Unsurprisingly, the car’s owner, company director Danny Talbot was ‘beyond angry’ when he viewed CCTV footage showing the ease with which his car was stolen on May 17.
High-tech car thieves working together can steal your keyless car within a few seconds
The high tech relay boxes scan for car keys and broadcast their signal to a second unit beside the motor which opens the door and allows it to start – fooling the car’s security system
He, his wife and two children had been in the house at the time, but the first he knew about the theft was when he saw the empty driveway.
‘It happened in the early hours,’ says Mr Talbot, who bought the Mercedes C-Class new in 2015.
So how did the thieves make off with the Mercedes with such ease? The answer is by using a swift and silent technique so successful that it’s one of the major factors behind car thefts in England a Wales hitting a six-year high last year.
Yesterday official figures showed the number of cars reported stolen to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in 2017 rose to 43,308 — up almost 9,000 since 2016.
Yet crime surveys from the Office for National Statistics suggest the true figure is even higher, with 89,000 vehicles stolen in England and Wales last year. In certain areas, such as the West Midlands, car theft has soared by 80 per cent.
Insurers paid out a record £271 million in theft claims in the first nine months of this year, says the Association for British Insurers, with keyless theft the ‘main driver’.
So-called ‘relay’ theft occurs when two thieves work together to break into keyless cars. They use equipment to capture electromagnetic signals emitted by keyfobs.
One thief stands by the car with a transmitter, while the other stands by the house with another, which picks up the signal from the electronic key, usually kept near the front door on a table or hook.
This is then relayed to the transmitter by the vehicle, causing it to think the key is in close proximity and prompting it to open. Thieves can then drive the vehicle away thanks to the keyless ignition and quickly replace locks and entry devices.
Any vehicle with keyless entry could be vulnerable to relay theft. These include cars from BMW, Ford, Audi, Land Rover, Volkswagen and Mercedes.
This CCTV footage showed a car thief opening the door of a Mercedes in Chigwell, Essex
The same method could conceivably be used in a car park. And the distance between the device and key could be up to nine metres.
Mr Talbot blames car companies for their flawed technology, and a government failing to tighten laws to prevent such crimes. After all, it is not illegal to sell or own a relay box device.
The only way police can arrest someone is under the ‘going equipped to steal’ law — meaning they would have to catch the thief red-handed with it, or prove an intent to use it for theft.
The same law applies to other gadgets supposedly designed to help owners who have lost their keys, such as key programmer devices, which tell the car to trust a new key and forget the code for the original one.
But police sources, security experts and locksmiths specialising in vehicles have all told the Mail there is ‘no legitimate reason’ to be in possession of a relay device.
If a driver was to lose their key, a relay box wouldn’t help them get back into their car, as the devices only work when the key is nearby. Car manufacturers and service centres would instead use special keys called ‘one time use’ keys that let them key in a new code for the driver.
An auto-locksmith already has tools to pick the lock of the car and gain access to it. They would then need to work with the owner and manufacturer to code a new key.
West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson — who also decried Britain’s car theft ‘epidemic’ — said: ‘They can only be used for one thing — breaking into a car which you don’t own.’
How to protect YOUR vehicle from the high-tech car thieves
Every make and model of car which can start ‘keylessly’ is susceptible to a relay attack.
To protect against car thefts, store your key more than 5m from the front door, as the key’s signal can rarely be picked up beyond this distance.
However, experts advise against hiding your car keys too obscurely in your house — because if serious criminals truly want to steal your car, they will break in and do anything to find the keys.
Faraday pouches — small, cheap pouches which shield the key’s radio signal from being transmitted — are useful in motorway service stations and car parks.
Parking in a well-lit area, using a steering wheel lock and installing a proper tracking device to your vehicle are highly recommended.
You’d be forgiven for assuming it’s difficult to lay your hands on such a device. But a Daily Mail investigation has revealed it couldn’t be easier.
Insiders have warned that Britain’s unregulated locksmith industry is awash with traders selling relay devices — some of which use their memberships of trade bodies as a masquerade for supplying them to criminals.
As well as making and selling theft devices, some retailers also provide YouTube videos demonstrating their use.
We discovered one Bulgarian electronics company has been using a small locksmiths in West London as a distributor of the gadgets in Britain.
With prices starting at £14,500, the ‘Keyless Go’ devices sold by Bulgarian-headquartered Edilock Ltd, are favoured by crime gangs. When a reporter visited its high-street distributor, Greenford Security Services Ltd in Ealing earlier this month, he was told cash could be left behind the counter with ‘no questions asked’.
Ron Cliff, who declined to comment, is the owner of Greenford Security and a member of the Master Locksmiths Association. He had boasted that the technology was ‘dead easy’ to use, and would be delivered ‘by DHL’ to any address from Bulgaria.
Employees at Greenford Security said customers visit the suburban locksmith from as far afield as the Midlands.
Simon Touch, an automotive locksmith operating from Beirut in the Lebanon, was also named by vehicle recovery experts as a vendor of kits capable of being used for car theft used in Britain.
Both Edilock and Simon Touch exhibited at the Master Locksmith Association (MLA) expo in London last year, while Edilock is a frequent presence at locksmiths’ conventions around the country, having also sold its wares at shows in Telford, Coventry, Nottingham and Edinburgh.
Last year, Ireland introduced laws compelling all locksmiths to be government-registered in order to stamp out cowboy vendors. But in Britain no accreditation or registration is required.
Earlier this year, at an emergency summit between police groups, vehicle manufacturers and the Master Locksmith Association (MLA), the MLA said this was one of the main reasons for car crime being at such high levels.
Peter Thompson of CanTrack Global, a vehicle recovery company, said: ‘There’s a real danger that saying “I’m a proper locksmith” means being part of an association where they can sell these devices and legitimise themselves.
‘At global locksmith events there are law enforcement agents [from outside of Europe] buying off the same guys that are supplying to the criminals.’ The Mail worked with Mr Thompson to demonstrate just how effective relay boxes are, using a device he obtained ethically through his work recovering stolen vehicles, to ‘steal’ three cars in under 60 seconds.
We simulated a situation in which keys were in a house, with a box held up to the front door. The other box was passed from one vehicle to the next. This allowed us to keylessly enter and start the vehicles in under 60 seconds.
Meanwhile companies like Edilock continue to tout their wares. Edilock was founded by Voskan Pehlivanyan, 42, a Bulgarian electronics expert who has been accused of using his skills to help steal cars — a claim he denies. He says instead that his expertise has been called in by car manufacturers and police in Europe.
Both Mr Pehlivanyan and Ron Cliff, 77, claim to be members of the European branch of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) which counts Interpol, police bodies, car insurers and licensing companies among its members.
Edilock’s website is visited thousands of times a day, with the UK one of its largest sources of traffic.
A description of one device retailing at 16,000 euros (£14,500) says: ‘The device is produced to open and start any car, without the use of any pick tools, equiped (sic) with Intelligent/ Keyless Go key system.’
Another says it can work on Mercedes up to 300m away and ‘when you do not have a clear view’.
Notes in red alongside the devices warn: ‘All devices are sold for official use only!!! If you use them for any illegal purposes, this is your own responsibility!!!’ When a reporter posing as a buyer contacted Edilock over Skype, he was not asked why he required the device and was told he could pay 16,000 euros in cash by flying to Bulgaria or depositing the sum at Greenford Security.
An employee said its Keyless Go devices worked on ‘almost all’ cars, and it had ‘sold many’ in the UK.
The seller boasted that the device could ‘pick a key signal through a pocket or door’ and could be used an unlimited number of times.
In a statement on behalf of Edilock, Mr Pehlivanyan said he began creating Keyless Go devices ‘at the request of several police departments and secret services around Europe’. He said they later declined to pay for development of the technology and refused to buy it.
‘When you go to the supermarket and buy a knife and next minute you kill a man. Whose fault is it then?’ he added.
Similarly, Hans Kooijman, executive director of the IAATI board, acknowledged Edilock being accused of supplying kits capable of being used for car theft, but said the responsibility wasn’t on product vendors to check who was buying.
‘If you go to a warehouse and buy a hammer are you going to use it to nail a hammer in the wall or to kill someone?’ he said. IAATI itself refused to formally comment.
Ian Elliott, a former Scotland Yard officer who specialised in detecting organised car crime for 30 years, said: ‘While I was in the job, I came across a number of criminals using Edilock-type devices.’ Mr Elliott said he wanted to see a change in the law preventing the manufacture of relay theft boxes, adding: ‘A legitimate business would never need one.’
With a relay box being of no use to a driver who has lost keys, and official car companies using one use keys in such situations, experts believe they are for criminal use.
When shown the offending websites, the Home Office said it would ‘continue to work with the police, industry and others to consider the evidence around new technologies and what more can be done to tackle emerging threats’.
A spokesman for Mercedes-Benz said: ‘All Mercedes-Benz vehicles have extensive security and anti-theft protection systems, which are continuously developed, taking account of the latest knowledge about criminal methods and attacks on security systems.
‘Customers have the option of deactivating the Keyless Go entry system with two clicks of the button on the key.’
Meanwhile, the police investigation is ongoing. Mr Talbot says: ‘I can’t believe that technology is available allowing thieves to make off with my property so easily.’
A sentiment no doubt echoed by many.