Blog The Rise of Keyless Car Theft in Canada

Sep 11, 2023

Thieves are using high-tech devices to steal your car - here’s how to prevent it

car key fob being held

With the increasing popularity of keyless entry and ignition, car theft through “relay attacks” is a growing concern for Canadian drivers and insurance providers.

Key fobs have become standard with most vehicles, but this system allows drivers to unlock and start their vehicles without taking the key fob out of their pocket. The problem is thieves can use technology to intercept the signal and easily steal your car.

If you own a car with a keyless entry system, your vehicle may be an easier target for thieves. In this post, we'll explore essential tips to keep your vehicle safe and offer advice on how to limit the risk.

What is keyless car theft?

In September 2023, CBC reported that the majority of stolen cars are exported by organized crime. Thieves utilize technology to steal your car. what used to take 10 to 20 minutes to steal a car, can now be done as fast as 15 to 30 seconds.

In Ontario, many stolen vehicles are targeted due to the keyless ignition system. Honda's CR-V, Toyota's Highlander, Lexus's RX and Ford's F-150 are among the most popular models targeted.

Vehicles are being stolen in a few ways, including relay attacks, onboard diagnostic port hacking, and CAN (Controller Area Network). Here’s how they work:

  • Relay attacks: Using a wireless transmitter and relay booster to capture and relay the signal from your key fob, overriding your car's computer.
  • Reprogramming: Another option for thieves is to plug a device into the onboard diagnostic port (ODB) or data port, reprogram the keyfob, and start the car.
  • CAN (Controller Area Network): Usually found near the front bumper, thieves will disrupt the signals or damage the cables, leading to the thief's access to override signals and start the vehicle.

The main type of keyless car theft is the “relay attack” which uses your key fob signal

You may have heard about the "relay attack" technique, where thieves use a device to capture signals from car key fobs inside homes and amplify them to unlock car doors. However, experts warn that criminals now opt for a simpler and more affordable solution: lock-picking tools. These tools can be easily found on online marketplaces for less than $60.

Once the car is accessed, thieves usually insert a key programmer, which can be obtained for less than $1,000 online, into the On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) port. This port is typically located beneath the steering wheel, where mechanics connect a diagnostic tool to the vehicle's computer.

By utilizing this port, the thieves can program a blank key fob to match the car's specifications. Almost any vehicle with a push-to-start ignition can be targeted this way. A different tool is required to duplicate the key for vehicles that use physical keys.

car key fob being held

How relay attacks work

Leaving your key near your front door makes it easier for them to get the signal since the thieves stand outside a home and use the transmitter device to pick up the signal. The signal can be hijacked even if your wireless key fob is in your purse or jacket.

A second person will usually stand near the vehicle ready to transmit the signal, unlock the door and start the vehicle. They may also want to steal your belongings or personal information.

  • Check vehicle: They will look at VIN to confirm the identity of the targeted car. (This is only for the ‘theft order’ so they make sure they are stealing the correct car).
  • Relay devices: Thieves can capture the signal from your key fob using relay devices that can pick up the fob's signal from outside your home, even if the fob is safely inside. Relay attacks involve an antenna to connect to the keyfob inside the house, simulating the keyfob being activated.
  • Amplification: The captured signal is amplified and transmitted to another relay device near your vehicle.
  • Access granted: By using one of the many high-tech options to steal your car, it will unlock and start it effortlessly by fooling the vehicle's system into thinking the key fob is nearby.

Tips to help prevent keyless car theft

Even if your vehicle isn’t on the top list of stolen vehicles, we should all be taking precautions to protect our vehicles. If you’re looking for advice on how to limit the chances of your vehicle being a target of relay attacks, here are five tips to consider:

  • Parking: If possible, park in a secured garage. Block your car between your garage and a second less desired vehicle.
  • Add additional security: Installing anti-theft devices can deter thieves. Other options include steering wheel locks, dash cams, or upgrading to a Tag car tracking system. Consider laying up for the best protection.
  • Motion detection lights and surveillance: Consider installing lights that are activated by motion, and adding surveillance cameras outside your home.
  • Use a Faraday bag or RFID pouches: RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) are designed with metal mesh to block a key fob from sending or receiving radio signals. Storing your keys away from the front door and in a metal box is also worth considering. Some fobs also allow you to turn off the wireless signal.
  • Keep valuables safe: Never leave valuable items in your vehicle, such as your wallet, laptop, or personal documents.
  • Stay updated: Stay informed about the latest security measures, keyless technology advancements, and theft trends to prevent vulnerabilities and stay ahead of thieves.

Theft is on the rise. Is your vehicle covered with the right insurance?

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car parked in front of house

It’s important to be mindful about locking your car at work, public parking, and even underground parking spots, as thieves can still pick up on signals. Even in this high-tech era, some of the most impactful ways to limit the risk of your car being stolen are steering wheel locks, blocking desirable cars in the driveway, and parking in secure garages. Take a look at our 10 tips to prevent auto theft.

Keyless fob vehicle theft FAQs

Over the past few years, car thefts using the vehicle's key fob have surged in Canada's urban centers, such as Toronto. Luxury vehicles with advanced keyless systems and high resale value are often the prime targets. Be sure to follow steps to limit the risk of keyless theft, and keep your Toronto car insurance up to date.

They can – vehicles with keyless ignition are prime targets because they use software to connect to your key fob. This allows them to unlock the car and even turn it on. Wireless relay attacks can scan signals from your key fob and get into the vehicle.

It’s highly worth considering a signal blocking pouch to protect your wireless key fob from transmitting the vehicle code. Since they are lined with metallic materials, thieves can struggle to access the data they need to take your vehicle. They are also an affordable option, starting at around $20.

It’s up to you to limit the risk of electronic car theft

Even with all the proper steps to prevent electronic vehicle theft, always reach out to your broker to ensure your Ontario auto insurance has the right coverage in place to protect you in the event of a theft. You can also ask about insurance discounts and rebates for installing additional protection measures.