How car thieves exploit your high-tech keys

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Criminals are using a new mix of high-tech and low-tech means to steal cars today, but owners can protect themselves by understanding these methods and guarding against them.

On the low-tech side, more drivers are simply giving crooks the keys to the kingdom — leaving their cars unlocked with the keys inside. On the high-tech side, criminals are using high-tech devices to hack into vehicles with keyless entry systems and swipe whatever is inside the car.

“We’ve seen several incidents around the country (of hackers using devices to break into vehicles),” says Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

Scafidi adds that these thieves haven’t been able to steal the vehicles. Still, taking personal items from inside cars can be lucrative on its own: Each year, more than $1 billion worth of personal property is stolen from vehicles, according to the NICB.

How they’re doing it

Those crooks are targeting vehicles equipped with keyless entry systems, which use radio frequency transmissions. The systems send a signal between your key fob and your vehicle, Scafidi says. Typically the fobs will unlock your car doors when you’re a couple of feet away from your vehicle.

But with a device called a “power amplifier,” thieves can search for key fobs that are up to 100 meters away and activate them to pop your door locks within seconds. Some of the devices can be purchased online for less than $20.

Just a year ago, high-tech car break-ins were rarely encountered by law enforcement officials, according to the NICB. But now they’re drawing the attention of auto theft investigators across the country.

One way to keep these high-tech thieves from getting into your car, according to experts, is to store your key fobs in a metal box — or even the microwave or freezer — to cut the signal.

Keys to the kingdom

Thieves, however, don’t necessarily need a power amplifier to gain access to your vehicle — particularly if you are careless with your keys.

In Pinellas County, Florida, law enforcement officers are seeing a rash of car thefts caused by people leaving their keys in the car with the doors unlocked. They’ve warned that if you have a keyless ignition and leave your key fob in the glove compartment or somewhere nearby, the crooks can push the ignition button and drive off.

In general, more cars with keyless entry systems are being stolen, says Randy Petro, chief claims officer for Mercury Insurance, though that doesn’t necessarily mean these vehicles are more vulnerable to theft.

“With the increase in vehicles equipped with keyless entry, we have noticed a corresponding increase in the number of keyless entry car thefts, but we don’t have data to support that these vehicles have a higher theft rate than other vehicles,” Petro says. “More likely, it’s just that more of these vehicles are being sold each year.”

Nationally, an increasing number of cars with the keys left inside are being stolen, though car thefts are on the decline overall.

From 2012 to 2014, more than 126,000 vehicles were stolen with the keys inside, according to the NICB. Last year alone they accounted for almost 45,000 of the 659,717 car thefts nationwide, according to the FBI.

California was tops in the nation, with nearly 20,000 thefts of vehicles with the keys inside. Texas recorded almost 9,000 such thefts, while Florida, Michigan and Ohio reported more than 7,000 thefts each.

Petro cautions drivers not to leave even their spare key or a valet key in their cars. “Thieves know to look for these,” he says, “so don’t make it easy for them to steal your vehicle.”

“It only takes a matter of seconds to protect yourself,” Scafidi says. That could mean avoiding leaving your car idling in the parking lot when you run into the convenience store, or letting it idle unattended on a cold winter morning.

And from the should-go-without-saying file: Be sure to never leave your vehicle unlocked with the keys inside when you park it for the night.

When insurance can help

Even if you do leave your keys in your car, your insurer is likely to honor your stolen vehicle claim, provided you’ve bought optional comprehensive car insurance.

“We all make mistakes. However, every claim is investigated and the facts of loss determined before a claim is paid,” Petro says.

If your car window isn’t broken when your vehicle was stolen, it doesn’t necessarily mean your auto insurer will view the claim with suspicion. “The fact that a vehicle window is not broken does not necessarily mean the loss may be fraudulent,” Petro says.

Allstate spokesman Justin Herndon says each claim is investigated on its own merit. “There is often more than one factor that helps us figure out claims. Keys are also (covered) on a case-by-case basis, but just losing your keys not related to any auto claim wouldn’t be a covered loss,” he says.

But you need to make sure you have the proper insurance, or you’ll be paying out of pocket to replace your stolen car or your possessions.

Almost every state requires you to carry liability insurance, but drivers of older cars might drop comprehensive coverage in order to save money. If you do and your car is swiped, you’ll be paying out of pocket for a new vehicle.

For the belongings stolen from your vehicle, you may have to rely on the personal property protection of your homeowners insurance or renters insurance for coverage.

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