Protect Against Car Hacking and Auto Theft

New technologies mean new risks for vehicle owners.

September 2016

If you own a car that was made by the Volkswagen Group since 1995, you may have heard that the keyless entry system can expose your vehicle to break-ins and theft—or perhaps you’ve already experienced one of these unlucky events. And Volkswagen owners aren’t the only ones at risk.

A team of researchers at the University of Birmingham recently found that a majority of the 100 million Volkswagen vehicles sold in the last decade—most with keyless entry systems—are vulnerable. Car hackers can use cheap, easily available radio hardware to intercept signals from a key fob and then use those signals to “clone” the key. The same research team also found hacking vulnerabilities in a system used by other manufacturers, including Chevrolet, Ford and Renault.

Further, the German automobile club ADAC recently announced results from a study testing a hack that extended the range of wireless key fobs. This means a key fob that would typically only communicate with its car from just a few feet away could, when hacked, activate the unlocking system or ignition from inside the house, allowing a perpetrator to open the vehicle and even drive away before the owner makes it outside. As Wired explained, the researchers pulled off the feat with a pair of radio devices (one held a few feet from the car and the other near the key fob) made with a few cheap chips, batteries, a radio transmitter and an antenna. Despite such lo-fi technology, the study found 24 different cars from 19 manufacturers to be at risk.

So what can you do about car hacking? There’s plenty of advice out there. One AAA spokesperson told USA Today that since heavy metal cages around a key fob can block an amplifier, you could keep your keys in the microwave, refrigerator or freezer (check with your car dealer to be sure this won’t damage the batteries first), or simply wrap them in aluminum foil while at home. Some companies, such as FobGuard, sell protective Faraday fob shields. Among other precautions, Driving.ca, the Canadian automotive website, recommends locking your car with the central door lock button rather than a wireless key fob, using an old-fashioned steering wheel lock, and even considering the purchase of a car from Tesla or General Motors, which hire “white hat” (ethical) hackers to look for bugs. And get to know your car's OBD, or on-board diagnostic system, the port that gives owners and repair technicians access to the various computer systems that operate in your vehicle. Don't let insurance programs or anyone else plug a "dongle" into the ODB port, which could open it up to hackers; and consider an OBD lock, which offers extra protection for your car's precious data. These few simple steps can put drivers back on the road to peace of mind.