Car thieves face curbs on online sales of key hacking technology fuelling surge in crime

·4 min read
TELEMMGLPICT000296745048.jpeg - Moment RF
TELEMMGLPICT000296745048.jpeg - Moment RF

Criminal gangs of car thieves face new legal curbs to prevent them buying DIY devices online to hack keyless technology and steal vehicles.

Ministers and police chiefs are considering legislation to close loopholes that allow the devices to be bought online on sites including eBay and Amazon.

Amid a surge in thefts, the Telegraph found firms freely selling electronic equipment to hack keyless cars, jammers to disable trackers and modern “skeleton” keys to open and drive away vehicles.

Police chiefs and motor manufacturers are concerned the ready availability of the technology is fuelling a rise in car thefts which increased by 14 per cent last year to more than 105,000.

Criminals are getting the equipment online and then “productionizing” it for cheap mass use by gangs of thieves, according to Thatcham Research, the motor insurers’ automotive research centre.

Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, held a summit of police and car industry chiefs last week to consider counter measures and is understood to be “open” to new laws to close the loopholes.

Assistant chief constable Jenny Sims, the National Police Chief Council’s (NPCC) lead on vehicle crime, said she was engaged in a “big piece of work” with the online firms to prevent sales of the devices to criminals and restrict it to legitimate businesses like garages, car dealers and locksmiths.

“We are looking at whether or not there are any legislative changes we can make, but at the same time we are working with sellers as legislation takes time. We'd rather do it voluntarily through the sellers who are cooperating,” she said.

TELEMMGLPICT000000835508.jpeg - PA
TELEMMGLPICT000000835508.jpeg - PA

It is not illegal to sell, buy or possess the technology but police can arrest prospective thieves if they have the equipment with them and can be shown to be “going equipped” to steal a vehicle.

One company based in Bulgaria offered an off-the-shelf “car relay attack unit.” This enables one member of a gang to scan and capture the signal from a keyless fob in a house before “relaying” it to a colleague by the car to open it and drive it away.

eBay lists dozens of key programming devices. One, priced at £349, allowed users to "generate and copy" garage remotes and "recognise and copy" access cards. It was listed as being "fit for" matching the keys of more than three dozen makes of car.

On Amazon, a "100 per cent genuine" lock-picking device was described as a “professional locksmith lock pick tool, and repair tool for cars. Pick and decoder."

It added: "Please use it [following] your country's law." The product, which was in stock, could be delivered to Amazon customers in the UK within three weeks.

A second "lock-pick and decoder tool,” available on Prime delivery, promised it was "suitable for the car lock opening and dark matching" of Volkswagens.

Ms Sims identified four types of theft through “relay” kits, devices to reprogramme blank keys from On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) ports after stealing the car, jamming devices to block trackers or prevent someone locking their car when they leave it and “turbo decoders”- modern-day skeleton keys.

“Many of these devices are readily available on online platforms but they are specialist-only tools, not legally allowed to be used by someone who isn't qualified, so if you are in possession of relay devices or such like then police will take action,” she said.

She urged motorists to always check their car was locked, store keys away from the car - and, if keyless fobs, keep them in a secure Faraday bag or a tin in the house to prevent interception of the signal. Additionally, she advised a traditional crook lock.

Organised crime gangs have been attracted by the high value, low risk crime with the proportion of car theft offences resulting in a charge down from nearly nine per cent in 2016 to three per cent last year.

Dr Keith Floyd, a policing researcher at Huddersfield University who has interviewed car thieves, said  they had spoken of how easy it was to buy the necessary equipment off the internet. “I don’t think the legislation has caught up with it,” he said.

A Home Office spokesman said: “We are taking forward work to review whether further measures are required to ensure devices used to commit car theft aren’t falling into criminals’ hands.

“As with all calls for legislative change, there needs to be a strong evidence base and any new regulations must be proportionate and enforceable.”

eBay said: "We aim to prevent the sale of prohibited items through block filter algorithms, and on the very rare occasion that such items evade our filters, our security teams will remove them from the site.

"We will also take enforcement action against sellers who breach our policies, which may include suspending accounts or permanent bans."

Amazon said all the products listed in the store comply with applicable laws and regulations.