Va va voom: French drivers bid ‘au revoir’ to their cars as high-tech car theft rises

Car theft in the UK is rising, with thieves hacking cars' electronic security systems

The number of cars being stolen by criminals hacking vehicles’ electronic systems is escalating. Earlier this year it was revealed that nearly half the cars stolen in London last year were taken without the key. Now new figures from across the Channel show that an estimated three quarters of cars stolen in France are targeted by ‘cyber criminals’ using electronic hacking.

According to 40 Million Motorists, a French consumer organisation, France’s 10 most stolen cars (between June 2014 and June 2015) include the Ford Fiesta, Renault Megane, Citroen Xsara Picasso, Seat Leon, Peugeot 308 and Smart ForTwo. All are popular with British drivers.

French vehicle security company, Traquer, estimates that 74 per cent of cars stolen in France are hacked through their electronic security systems. The Metropolitan Police has already revealed that last year 6000 cars were taken in London without the use of any keys. In the West Midlands, police estimate that 36 per cent of the 3472 cars stolen in 2014 were taken by so-called cyber crooks.

The Met has recorded a rise in vehicle thefts this year compared with last. And Greater Manchester police have warned of an increase in car theft, as have February Humberside police.

Pierre Chasseray, of 40 Million Motorists, told Le Parisien newspaper that car makers should improve electronic security systems: “Almost the entire car fleet in France can be hacked like a computer today. A car thief today is a technician without needing to be a computer genius. He just needs to connect his little electronic box to open the car.”

“It is a matter of urgency as electronic theft is now massive. I am calling on makers: secure your cars,” he said.

In Britain, thieves have been breaking into cars and using hand held gadgets programmed in China and Eastern Europe and bought online for as little as £10. The devices hack into the car’s computer and program a blank electronic key. This bypasses the immobiliser and can be used to start the car and drive it away. The process typically takes less than a minute.

The worrying trend has come about for two reasons. Nearly all car makers have done away with a traditional key and ignition barrel and replaced them with a ‘keyless’ system. These use radio waves to exchange codes between the so-called smart key and car’s immobiliser. The appeal is one of convenience: owners do not even have to take the fob out of their pocket to unlock their car. They simply pull at the door handle, or press a small button, and the car unlocks. Once inside, the vehicle can be started at the touch of a button.

European regulations mean third parties must be allowed access to a car’s On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) port – the digital pathway into the car’s computer. This is so non-manufacturer franchises can service the car and program a new key fob. The law is aimed at ensuring independent garages and locksmiths can work on any new car.

But technology has since evolved, meaning crooks don’t even need to break in to the vehicle to gain access to its electronic security systems. Criminals are now able to intercept the signal sent from a key fob to the vehicle, jam rolling codes, and unlock the car once its owner has left the scene.

Avoiding car theft: Tips from the Met Police

• Park in an open, well-lit and secure area if possible. Use a garage if you have one or make sure your car is in view of CCTV cameras
• Fit an alarm or immobiliser
• Use a steering wheel and/or gearstick lock
• Consider having an OBD lock fitted
• Consider fitting a tracker so that if your car is stolen police have more chance of finding it

For details of after-market locks that are approved by Thatcham, the vehicle research centre responsible for setting security standards for new cars sold in Britain, read our guide to the best locks available.

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