Throughout the ’90s, factory-installed and aftermarket automotive security systems made it harder and harder to steal vehicles. Now, thieves have become more creative in their methods to take possession of your vehicle. What’s known as a relay attack can have someone into and driving your vehicle in less than a minute. While it seems complicated, for someone versed in basic electronics, the process is simple and reliable. Let’s take a look at how it works.
How Does a Keyless Entry System Work?
Keyless entry systems require the vehicle owner to have a fob in their possession. These fobs include a low-power radio transmitter that broadcasts a signal to let the vehicle know it’s nearby. When you’re near the vehicle and press the unlock button on the door handle, a radio-frequency transmitter in the car broadcasts a request for authentication. The fob in your pocket or purse will respond with a code, and if verified, the security computer in the vehicle will issue a digital command to unlock the doors.
To start the engine, a second transmitter with a very limited range (typically not extending beyond the windows) sends another request to the fob for authentication when you press the Start button. If the code comes back as being authorized, the security computer tells the engine control module to initiate the vehicle starting process. The communication between the vehicle and the key fob takes place instantaneously, making the process of getting into and starting your vehicle effortless and efficient.
What is a Relay Attack?
If a thief wants to break into your vehicle, he or she no longer needs a crowbar to break a window or a “slim jim” to manually actuate the locking mechanism. Modern thieves are using a pair of simple two-way radios in what’s known as a relay attack. The process uses your key fob to unlock your car. Here’s how it works.
Two thieves are required to complete the process. One will stand near your car and the second will come to the front door of your house. Each dastardly no-gooder is equipped with a two-way radio designed specifically to work on the frequencies used by your key fob and the vehicle security system. The radio by your front door is equipped with a high-gain directional antenna. The thief slowly sweeps across the front entrance of your house, hoping to catch the transmission from your fob. Any signal that he (or she) picks up is relayed to the second box by the vehicle. The criminal by the car needs only to push the unlock button repeatedly as the other transceiver sweeps back and forth. As soon as the code from the fob is broadcast beside the car, it unlocks and the thief by the house knows where to point the antenna.
The second step is to steal the vehicle. The thief near the vehicle gets in with his radio-frequency relay device and presses the Start button. If the other thief by the door still has the antenna pointed at the fob, the authorization request will be completed and the vehicle will start. Nothing is damaged, broken or altered in the process.
How Can You Combat Relay Thefts?
There are two approaches to preventing thieves from using your key fob to steal your vehicle. The first involves keeping your key fob in a place that makes it impossible (or at least very difficult) for the thieves to pick up its broadcast signal. At night, keeping your keys upstairs in the bedroom is a good idea. Another suggestion is to keep them in a metal tin or case. The success of this method relies on you remembering to do this every time you enter your home.
Several technological solutions are available to help prevent thefts. A product called Secure-A-Key can be installed inside your fob to prevent relay attacks. Secure-A-Key uses a small microcontroller in conjunction with an accelerometer. If the fob remains motionless for several minutes, the battery is electrically disconnected from the transmitter, making it impossible for the relay antenna to pick up a signal. As soon as you pick up the keys to start your car or truck, the connection is reestablished and everything works normally.
Another suggestion is to have a bypass or kill switch installed in the vehicle. Your local specialty mobile enhancement retailer can add a switch, or an interface with an existing button in your vehicle, that will prevent the vehicle from starting. You’ll need to activate this button at the same time as you press Start in order for the car to start. Using a turn signal is a common solution.
Monitor Your Vehicle
A third option won’t specifically prevent a relay attack, but it will let you monitor your vehicle so you know exactly what’s happening outside your home. If you have a remote starter or security system with a two-way remote like the Compustar T11 or T12, you can have the system configured to let you know when a door is unlocked and when the ignition is turned on, even if the factory key is being used. The notifications are presented in the form of a beep from the remote, a vibration and, of course, an indication of what’s occurred on the LCD screen.
If you have equipped your vehicle with a DroneMobile telematics interface, you can ask that it be configured to provide ignition alerts on your smartphone. You can also configure DroneMobile’s Curfew feature to provide alerts if your vehicle moves outside of a predetermined area (your driveway, for example) during specific hours. This information will let you notify the police if your vehicle is being or has been stolen, and the locating feature of the DroneMobile Premium plan will let you track its location so it can be returned quickly.
Protect Your Vehicle from Theft
If you have a pickup truck or luxury vehicle, it is a target for automobile theft. By taking some simple precautions when at home, and implementing technologies like Secure-A-Key or a starter override switch, you can foil the plans of even the most advanced car thieves. For more information, visit your local specialty mobile enhancement retailer today.