Lifestyle Guides

Relay theft: how to protect your car against it

Find out more about relay car theft and how you can protect your car from opportunist thieves

how relay theft works

As more and more vehicles now have keyless entry, thieves have to get creative. And according to ABI figures, they're doing just that – insurers paid out for more motor theft claims during the first three months of 2019 than for any time since 2012.

Some say that this could be down to criminal gangs catching up with car technology and learning how to get around modern security systems with a method called 'relay theft'.

What is relay theft?

Relay theft or keyless theft occurs when two thieves work together to break into cars which have keyless entry systems.

The thieves can use equipment to capture signals emitted by certain keys which are used to start new vehicles.

One thief stands by the car with a transmitter (also known as a relay box), while the other stands by the house with another, which picks up the signal from the key which is usually kept near the front door on a table or hook.

This is then relayed to the other transmitter by the vehicle, causing it to think the key is in close proximity and prompting it to open. Thieves can then drive the vehicle away and quickly replace the locks and entry devices.

Which cars are vulnerable to relay theft?

Technically, any vehicle with keyless entry could be vulnerable to relay car crime. 

In 2019, Admiral Car Insurance claims team saw 1,779 unrecovered theft claims which weren’t burglary and are likely to have been stolen using some sort of technology.

The vehicles in this batch include some high-end brands known to be susceptible to relay theft: 

  • Audi
  • BMW
  • Ford
  • Land Rover
  • Mercedes
  • Volkswagen
  • Volvo

New research by Thatcham in March 2019 revealed a number of new cars which don't offer adequate protection against keyless theft. 

They tested 11 vehicles, six of which were given a 'poor' rating as their keyless entry/start system have no security measures to prevent hi-tech theft. 

Make/model Security rating
Audi e-tron Superior
Ford Mondeo Poor
Hyundai Nexo Poor
Jaguar XE Superior
Kia ProCeed Poor
Range Rover Evoque Superior
Lexus UX Poor
Mercedes B-Class Superior
Porsche Macan Poor
Suzuki Jimni Unacceptable
Toyota Corolla Poor

Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer at Thatcham Research, said: “We’ve seen too many examples of cars being stolen in seconds from driveways. Now, any vehicle that is assessed against the new Thatcham Research Security Rating, and has a vulnerable keyless entry/start system, will automatically not achieve the best rating.

“Security has come a long way since vehicle crime peaked in the early 1990s. But the layers of security added over the years count for nothing when they can be circumvented instantly by criminals using digital devices.

"The shame is that most of the cars rated ‘Poor’ would have achieved at least a ‘Good’ rating had their keyless entry/start systems not been susceptible to the Relay Attack.”

How to prevent relay box car theft

This has long been a necessary precaution in order to avoid car theft, but it's important to make sure that your key is as far from the front door as possible so its signal can't be picked up.

As hacking devices get more sophisticated, they may be able to pick up signals from further away.

metal box – though it may seem excessive – could be the best place to store your keys overnight as the metal could block the signal. A Faraday pouch or container, which is lined with layers of metallic material, works in the same way. 

Lorna Connelly, head of claims at Admiral said: "Unfortunately, we do see claims from customers who have had their cars stolen due to relay theft and it's a problem that we would advise motorists with keyless cars to be aware of.

"Despite progresses in anti-theft technology, thieves are always coming up with new ways to make off with your vehicle.

"We are urging all of our customers to keep their keys a safe distance from the door and consider storing them in a metal box. While this may seem like an extreme solution, relay theft is an extreme practice."