Here’s How A $17 Gadget Breaks Your Car’s Keyless System

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Apr 16 2015
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You were a proud owner of that Passat, Prius, Lexus SUVs, BMW, Benz or simply that piece of overpriced junk called Proton. And the reason you were particularly proud was because you had actually paid extra for that optional feature called keyless system. You felt like you were Tony Stark with this new technology installed onboard your pricey car (automobile dealers in Malaysia actually make keyless systems a premium feature).


The next morning, you found out that – Poof!! – your beloved car was gone. There were no broken glass, let alone any brick or a crowbar to indicate that an old-fashioned type of car theft had taken place. Just when you thought new technologies should have make your car more secure, the opposite is true. Suddenly, stealing cars installed with keyless systems have become as easy as buying big mac at McDonald’s.

Car Theft - Illustration

Last week, the Toronto Police Service issued a news release warning that thieves “may have access to electronic devices which can compromise” a vehicle’s security system. Apparently, Canadians have seen a spike in car theft of their Toyota and Lexus SUVs, which in all cases showed no signs of damage at any of the scenes. Other than asking members of the public to be vigilant when securing their cars, the police couldn’t do much.


Years ago, thieves could practically drive away your car without you losing your wireless key fob. Forget about thousand of dollars of supposedly “secured” immobilizers. Thieves hacked Land Cruiser immobilizers in 12-seconds, stole RAV-4 in 14-seconds, and even reprogrammed BMW security codes in merely minutes to a new key. All you need were on-board diagnostic tools (OBDs), purchasable over internet, made-in-China for only US$30.

Car Theft - David Beckham BMW X5 at Spain

As far back as 2006, thieves have been having good time stealing cars which use fob-based ignition systems that do not require physical keys to operate. Armed with a laptop, the proper software, and a radio transmitter, thieves can remotely unlock and then start your cars. And who can forget how David Beckham lost his armoured BMW X5 to some Spanish thieves the same way described, while the football star was at lunch?


If you want to become such thieves, go watch Nicolas Cage’s “Gone in 60 Seconds” again for inspiration (*grin*). Now, here’s how a modern keyless system works. When you walk up to your car with a keyless entry and try the door handle, the car wirelessly calls out for your key so you don’t have to press any buttons to get inside. If the key calls back, the door unlocks. It’s some sort of authentication or a hand-shake process.

Nicolas Cage Gone in 60 Seconds

It was being built in such a way that the keyless entry system and the valid wireless key fob can only operate within a couple of feet of the vehicle. And for that to work, it uses low frequency so that you don’t accidently open your car doors a half a mile away. So, how can a thief still able to hack your expensive car, without using any laptop or reprogrammed security codes into a new key, while the key fob is safely in your underwear?


The answer is a device costing as little as US$17 which can be bought online from eBay or Amazon. As found out by Nick Bilton over at The New York Times, the ingenious method used now is the dirt cheap “power amplifier”. With this device, it amplified the distance that the car can search, which then allowed your car to talk to your key, which could be sitting about 50 feet away in your bedroom.

Car Theft - Keyless Systems

So, don’t be surprise when you found out that you’ve lost your car while you were happily sipping latte away at Starbucks. But how to secure your vehicle if it has a keyless entry system? Don’t let it send any signal in or out. And to do that, put your key fob in the freezer, which acts as a “Faraday Cage”. That can be done easily at home, if you don’t mind the long term effects on the key. But at Starbucks? Perhaps a US$7 RFID signal blocker pouch could do the trick (*grin*).


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