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Can thieves take advantage of your high-tech car key?

Nick DiUlio

It looks like car thieves are catching up with some of the technology designed to thwart them.

According to a recent report from the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau, a trend is emerging that shows an increase in the number of late-model vehicles being stolen. What makes this particularly perplexing is that in theory, these vehicles should be harder to steal because they’re equipped with key code technology.

Crime bureau spokesman Roger Morris says keys for most vehicles made after 1997 are equipped with what’s known as smart key technology. This means they contain an encoded chip (either in the key itself or its fob) that corresponds with the software of just one vehicle, allowing the doors to unlock and the engine to start. It’s more difficult for thieves to replicate these types of keys when trying to steal a car.

However, Morris says, car crooks are beginning to find ways around this layer of protection. For instance, thieves may have relationships with car dealership employees who have access to the key codes of hundreds of cars. According to the crime bureau’s data, the first three months of 2012 saw 531,031 instances of replaced smart keys; 277 of these vehicles were stolen within a week of the key being replaced.

“This isn’t like the old days when someone could steal a key and get a new copy cut down at the local hardware store,” Morris says. “These newer keys have computer chips inside them, and thieves are finding new ways of getting replicas made. It’s a complex and intricate operation.”

How it’s done

Jeremy Warnick, spokesman for LoJack Corp., a provider of tracking and recovery technology for stolen vehicles, says drivers need to step up their efforts to combat high-tech car thieves.

“Sophisticated thieves are outsmarting advances in technology by using a variety workarounds,” Warnick says. “According to our law enforcement contacts, thieves obtain key code information for specific vehicles typically by seeking crimes of opportunity and using fraudulent means.”

These means can include:

Basic theft. Warnick says drivers should be cautious about leaving their keys in places such as valet parking garages, gyms and repair shops. Thieves have been known to take advantage of these opportunities to steal keys.

Advanced technology. According to Warnick, thieves can sometimes get key code information using devices designed to capture key codes for duplication, as well as clear out and reprogram vehicle computers with new codes. Once the vehicle is reprogramed with a new code, it no longer will respond to the original key but will respond to a new key obtained by a car thief.

Furthermore, some experts have expressed concern that smart keys are vulnerable to technology that’s able to “trick” the car’s computer into thinking a smart key fob is being used. In 2010, researchers in Switzerland — who were equipped with high-tech antennae — were able to trick 10 car models from eight manufacturers into thinking a car’s key fob was nearby. This enabled them to gain access to and “steal” the vehicles.

Identity theft. In some cases, car thieves have tried to take a fraudulent identity and a vehicle identification number (VIN) to a dealership or locksmith and request a replacement key, a technique that has proven successful for some contemporary car thieves.

Violent crime. Thieves even have carjacked vehicles or burglarized homes to obtain key codes, Warnick says.

Don’t become a victim

Ron Montoya, consumer advice editor at automotive website, says that while this new and perplexing trend in car theft hasn’t escalated far enough to inspire widespread fear, drivers should take precautions.

“Generally speaking, late-model cars are very safe — the safest we’ve ever had,” Montoya says. “But it’s dangerous to underestimate car thieves.”

Here are a few ways to protect yourself and your vehicle:

Use common sense. According to the Texas Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, almost half of all stolen vehicles are left unlocked.

Montoya and Warnick say drivers also should be aware of people who may be borrowing their keys or their cars. Also, never leave your keys in the vehicle with the engine running, don’t hide a spare key in the vehicle, and close all windows and lock all doors when you’re leaving your car.

“Make sure you park in a well-lit area and, when you’re at home, keep your vehicle in the garage,” Warnick says.

Also, you never should leave valuables visible in your car, especially if they include information about your identity (such as your wallet or financial documents). 

Use theft prevention products. A thief may be less inclined to steal your car if it has visible and audible warning devices like a wheel lock or alarm system, Morris says. 

Warnick adds that immobilizers — which include smart keys that can be used to prevent thieves from hotwiring a vehicle — can offer another means of protection. But keep in mind that some professional crooks can disable these devices.

Comprehensive insurance is critical

There’s only one type of insurance that will protect you if your car is stolen. It’s called comprehensive coverage, and it’s an optional addition to basic liability coverage. 

Comprehensive coverage applies to things like theft, fire, lightning, wind and flooding. Mike Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, says many drivers incorrectly think they need collision coverage to protect against theft. Optional collision coverage kicks in only when your car hits another car or object. 

“If you drive a newer model car, it’s a good idea to consider buying comprehensive coverage,” Barry says. “It’s relatively inexpensive and brings with it some peace of mind.”


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