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Be on Guard Against These 5 High-Tech Car Thefts

From key fobs to catalytic converters, thieves are finding new ways to steal

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With all the advanced technology in today’s vehicles, from GPS to cellular connections, one would think it’s just about impossible to steal a car. But criminals have managed to keep up.​

Auto “theft is going up,” says Kay Wakeman, director of insurance outreach for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI). “We found overall losses from theft were up 70 percent during a four-year period from 2017 to 2021, and that was surprising because it was only up 7 percent between 2013 and 2017,” Wakeman says.​

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New forms of high-tech break-ins have come to the forefront. Now catalytic converter thefts are a criminal mainstay while TikTok and YouTube videos offer instructions on how to hijack certain cars for a joyride. ​

Different kinds of car crimes “go in ebbs and flows,” Wakeman says, but there’s no question that whole vehicle thefts are going up. Here are the top high-tech ways cars and trucks are being stolen today — and how to protect yourself.​

1. Key fob hacks

Wireless key fobs are convenient, allowing drivers to open a car door with a touch or open a rear hatchback with a sweep of a foot. But those key fobs are also a potential vulnerability for thieves to exploit. One example is the Relay Attack, a two-person attack. The first crook walks up to the victim’s front door with an antenna and a device that receives and then retransmits the signal from a car key fob. An accomplice waits nearby at the car door, usually with another device, to open the car when the signal is received. ​

This technique has been used for several years. Consequently, some higher-end targets have come up with creative solutions. Some automakers, for example, now use software that tells the car key fob to stop transmitting when it’s not moving. Car owners can also thwart such attacks themselves with some precautionary steps. First, don’t toss your key fob into a bowl in your foyer; keep the key far away, say, in your bedroom or kitchen. Second, you can use an RFID-blocking box or bag, sometimes called a Faraday pouch, to hold your key fob at home. Designed to block electromagnetic field (EMF) radiation, a Faraday pouch will prevent anyone from tapping into the fob’s RFID signal. Finally, if you have the option, park your car in a locked garage rather than leaving it in the driveway.​

2. The Kia Challenge 

Thieves are now creating social media videos to show others how to steal cars for joyrides. The recent Kia Challenge video series targets pre-2022 Kia models and entry-level Hyundai vehicles, such as the 2015 to 2019 Sonata. ​

The videos on Tiktok and YouTube describe how to remove the covering on those cars’ steering columns, take out the key ignition cylinder and use a standard USB plug to physically turn on the ignition switch and start the car. The whole operation requires only a screwdriver and a USB cable. It works on less-expensive models from Kia and Hyundai because they do not include so-called immobilizers that cut off power and usually lock the steering wheel.​

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How popular has the Kia Challenge crime wave been? HLDI’s Wakeman says that her group saw thefts more than double in Wisconsin and increase rapidly in other states thanks to the challenge.​

The National Insurance Crime Bureau asked social media outlets to take down these how-to videos, although it’s still easy to find them online. Matthew Phillips, CEO of Car Pros, a large Kia dealership group on the West Coast, says that about 75 percent of the vulnerable models will get free software upgrades. However, the updates are specific to each model, so the rollout is coming in stages and owners will have to visit their local dealership to get the security patch. Owners of the remaining vehicles will be offered steering wheel locks. (Owners can contact Hyundai at 800-633-5151 and Kia at 800-333-4542 for updates.) ​

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Phillips also points out that the criminals still have to physically break into a car to perform this hack. “The only thing high-tech is the distribution of the information,” Phillips says. “It’s smash and grab.” Until owners receive the update, they should use a steering wheel lock or try not to leave their vehicles parked in open lots or on the street.​

3. Catalytic converter thefts

Sometimes it’s not the method of theft but the target itself that is high tech. That’s the story behind the epidemic of catalytic converter thefts, which are so common they have a nickname — “cat thefts.” According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, catalytic converter thefts increased 1,215 percent between 2019 and 2022.​

Catalytic converters are anti-pollution devices and are part of most gas-powered vehicle exhaust systems. To create a chemical reaction that reduces emissions, catalytic converters use three precious metals: rhodium, palladium and platinum. These metals have become very precious indeed, with rhodium alone recently priced at $9,750 per ounce. That has made cat thefts very appealing, especially for Toyota Prius models from 2004 to 2009.​

Wakeman says there are three reasons for the Prius’ particular appeal: The cars have an easily recognizable design, they use higher concentrations of precious metals than other models and stealing them requires removing just a few bolts. Usually, thieves have to saw off the converter. Commercially sold catalytic converter shields, which provide protection around the part, can help make this process more difficult for thieves, but some experts say they're not very effective. ​

Since thieves usually try to sell the stolen parts to salvage businesses, some local police departments run regular etching programs to mark converters with the owner’s license plate number or VIN number. The markings then act as a deterrent, making it more difficult to sell to reputable recyclers. If you’re the victim of cat theft, expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $2,500 to have a replacement converter installed.​

4. Code grabbing

We’ve all done it. You’ve just parked your car at the shopping mall and as you’re walking away, you wonder, “Did I actually lock the car?” So you reach into your pocket and hit the key fob to confirm your vehicle is locked. That’s when thieves can strike, intercepting the radio frequency from your key fob and then copying your code. The flash of a car’s lights tells them which car to steal.​

The devices used to conduct such an attack are readily available online for about $300 along with key fobs that can be reprogrammed. This variation on the relay attack means that thieves don’t have to track cars to the owner’s abode. Often, orders for high-end luxury cars are placed in advance, so thieves sit and wait until the right model drives into the parking lot and follow it to a spot. So, be aware of your surroundings and instead of hitting the remote lock button, lock your car before you walk away.​

5. Reprogramming theft 

Like everything else during the pandemic, car theft went online in a big way during lockdowns and quarantines. In 2021, for example, the New York City Police Department busted an organized crew that lifted 45 cars over six months. ​

According to the NYPD, the theft ring first targeted specific cars and then turned to the dark web to get key codes for these models. The group then programmed blank key fobs that enabled them to gain access to the cars without triggering the alarm. Once inside, they reprogrammed the vehicle’s computer system to circumvent any additional security systems and drove away. Incidentally, this type of attack also disables the owner’s key fob.

While law enforcement continually tries to shut down such illegal websites, the only current recourse for owners is to not leave their vehicle in public parking spots for days and to use a physical device, like a steering wheel lock ($30 to $45), to deter thieves.​

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close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

AARP Auto Buying Program Powered by TrueCar

Shop for a car with safety features you want. Buyers can get a free AARP Smart Driver course.

close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

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