Auto theft investigators are worried about an unfolding threat that could end with your car being stolen.
The emerging, shadowy peril is from something characterized as a "mystery device" that allows thieves to unlock and enter cars equipped with remote keyless-entry systems --without breaking glass or jimmying locks.
Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, admits that experts are a bit baffled by these contraptions.
"Frankly, no one really knows for sure how they operate," he says. "They come in various shapes and sizes. They are, quite literally, 'mystery devices.'"
But Scafidi and others insist the potential threat these devices pose is very real.
"We know that they are out there," he says. "We have documented cases where they have been used."
News reports about thieves using such technology to hack into a vehicle's keyless-entry system first surfaced a couple of years ago. Thieves have reportedly stolen items from cars, but not the cars themselves.
"The incidents that we have on record are basically where an individual with one of these things is walking along a public sidewalk or in a parking garage and gains access to a vehicle that is unlocked by the device," Scafidi says.
Experts concerned about crime trend
Michael Barry, spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, says insurers are aware of the threat that mystery devices pose.
But like Scafidi, he stresses that to date, there have been no reported thefts of vehicles related to the use of such an apparatus.
Still, auto theft investigators worry that stealing cars is the next logical step if and when the technology allows it.
Last month, a poll of such investigators found that 74 percent are concerned that thieves may use what are characterized as "mystery devices" to unlock cars.
In addition, 36 percent of the investigators believe such devices can be used to start cars, giving thieves the opportunity to steal them.
The NICB conducted the poll at the annual training seminar of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI).
Terri Miller, executive director of the Michigan-based Help Eliminate Auto Thefts (HEAT), says the growing use of technology in today's cars -- and the fact that hackers are bent on finding ways of exploiting them -- make mystery devices a potentially big threat.
Should you worry?
However, Miller also notes that relatively few criminals are capable of using mystery devices to break into cars.
"The average car thief does not have the level of sophistication to do this," she says.
Scafidi says that for now, drivers should not be overly panicked about the prospect of mystery devices wreaking havoc.
"Our warning the public is more a decision to inform them of what we have seen, without inciting panic," he says.
Still, he acknowledges, "the potential for this to become a big problem is certainly there."
If that happens, car owners will have a tough time defending themselves from becoming targets.
"You really can't protect against that if you are forced to park on the street or while you visit a shopping mall," Scafidi says.
Scafidi, Barry and Miller are hopeful that carmakers will respond to the potential threat before it becomes a major issue.
"Auto manufacturers need to stay one step ahead of the thieves who are getting around their current antitheft technology," Barry says.
In the meantime, Barry urges drivers to take common-sense measures -- such as activating antitheft devices -- to keep their cars and the valuables in them safe.
"It is always a good idea to keep valuables such as iPhones out of view from passersby," he says.
Miller urges drivers to use common-sense measures, such as locking doors at all times and parking the car in a garage whenever possible. Activating alarm systems or tracking systems also can deter thieves.
It also is wise to have a visible deterrent in the car, such as a steering wheel lock device.
"Have something visible that shows the thief that your car is going to be more difficult to steal than the car next to it," she says.
And, Scafidi adds, there is one group of drivers -- those without remote keyless-entry systems -- who never should have to worry about "mystery devices."
"If you drive an old beater like I do, these devices are worthless," Scafidi says.