Other than writing your own car off, there surely cannot be a worse feeling than having your car stolen from under your nose. You’ve poured your blood, sweat and a tonne of cash into your own little source of automotive joy and yet someone thinks they have the right to take it from you in a malicious criminal act. With a huge demand for second hand parts – especially in the luxury car sector – cars are getting stolen at an alarming rate to break for parts to be sold online.
Whole cars are also shipped off to far-flung countries as jurisdiction is fairly limited once a car is off home soil. Eastern Europe has become a hotspot for stolen luxury SUVs like Range Rovers and BMW X5s, their rugged nature perfect for the challenging roads in places like Albania and Bulgaria. With a car estimated to be stolen every 43 seconds in the US, how are these criminals going about their business?
OBD port hacking
The OBD (on-board diagnostics) port is used by technicians to investigate the diagnostics of a car, finding the source of any warning lights displayed by a car’s on-board computers. Coding devices can be plugged into the OBD to set about controlling the functions of the car. Alarms can be disabled, doors unlocked and engines started within seconds once an encryption device has been plugged in, simulating a key entering the car’s ignition.
OBD ports have to be easily accessible by law so that rival car companies can check out the on-board systems, and with freely-available encryption devices found online to simulate a key and reprogramme the car’s security settings, the thief can have the car started and rolling within just 15 seconds.
With the popularity of keyless entry growing by the day, criminals have latched onto this convenient form of entry to devastating effect. Routine equipment used by workshops and specialists to encrypt keyless entry has swiftly been swept up by criminals and is now being used to maliciously reprogramme keys. Key fob programmers can be simple handheld devices that plug into the OBD and can swiftly set to work coding a new fob. Once inside and with a newly-programmed key, all the thief has to do is press the start/stop button and away he goes.
Both of these hacking methods are made even easier by owners who place their key fob near a window or close to wherever the car is parked. By using simple devices that can send a frequency to block the signal sent from your key to lock the car while you’re walking away from it, the thieves can intercept the signal. With a key clone they can then walk up and drive the car away.
To protect from this form of hacking, OBD locks can be purchased to deter any form of physical connect with the port. And with technology and coding within cars growing at an exponential rate, it is advised to make sure that all the on-board electronic systems are up to date, as vital security software updates will be added through research to keep any hackers at bay, much like in laptops and phones.
In older cars that don’t have keyless entry or maybe not even any central-locking at all, thieves have a much easier time. A ‘slim jim’ is a hook and wire combination that can be used to slide down the window, through the window seal and down into the lock system within the door. A quick shimmy and a pull on the lock will see it flicked to its open position, allowing the burglar to enter the car and set about the car’s electronics.
Another method involves hammering a screwdriver into the lock mechanism until the door can be wrenched open.
With schematics of the wires that make up a car’s ignition system found in databases online, someone can find the right colour of wire to snip and set about hot wiring the vehicle. By snipping the power wires found under the steering wheel and winding the ends together, a complete circuit is formed which will initiate the fuel pump like the first turn of the ignition. By then cutting and stripping the wires on either side of the ignition interlock, they can be touched to send current through to the starter motor to get the car running.
Much older cars with worn-down ignition chambers can even be started by hammering in a flat-head screwdriver, simulating a key thus allowing the engine to start through normal ignition.
The AA over here in the UK has found that by far the most common form of car theft is through simple breaking and entering. The majority of car owners still seem to leave their keys out in the most convenient of places, thinking that the risk of burglary is extremely low. In 2015, 90,000 cars were stolen in the UK, with the vast majority being cat burglars entering households through a window and swiping the keys from the worktop or the hall table.
These thieves are therefore completely relying on targeted owners who don’t bother to put car keys in a safe and secure place, especially overnight. That said, if your car is particularly valuable, you probably don’t want the keys too well: there have been cases of burglars using violence when breaking and entering to find keys.
Even placing your keys down in busy places like restaurants or cafes can make life ridiculously easy for the petty car thieves out there, with leaving you keys within your car while nipping to the shops being deemed a cardinal sin of car ownership.
It is now possible to hack a vehicle’s CAN bus system using a laptop, a satellite and a circuit board. The CAN bus system in a car is a grouping of all the car’s on-board computers where they can all talk to each other and interact to provide every function the vehicle needs to move.
With initial hacking previously only accomplished through a physical connection between the laptop, OBD and CAN bus system, programmers have now been able to send wireless commands via satellite to vehicles miles away, sending a scary reminder to manufacturers of how quickly they need to develop their security systems.
With features like autonomous driving now becoming standard on high-end luxury cars, manufacturers like Tesla will have to work well ahead of any criminals out there to secure the new-found convenient technology from any malicious tinkering. Imagine if someone could access an autonomous drive function, set some GPS coordinates and left you watching from your bedroom window as your Model X drove away in hackable silence. Not good.
Although car theft is declining as on-board systems get more complicated and therefore more expensive to hack, hundreds of thousands of cars are stolen in the US every year. Many of these burglaries can be avoided using blatantly obvious but often overlooked methods that could one day save your own car from getting swiped by some opportunistic cretin. Simply never leaving keys near windows will greatly reduce the risk of someone deciding your car is worth stealing.
Also, simple garage servicing and making sure your car is annually MOT’d will allow technicians to plug into the OBD and update and enhance any security systems on your car, making the hacking process that bit harder for any tech-based thieves. Other obvious things like leaving your car in a well-lit area and fully locked are a must if you value your vehicle, with aftermarket immobilisers and wheel locks also providing an extra barrier from any unwanted attention.
Have you ever had your car stolen or do you take extra precautions to see that no one gets their mits on your pride and joy? Comment below with how you go about protecting your car.