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Could thieves use jamming technology to steal your car?


Powered by article titled “Could thieves use jamming technology to steal your car?” was written by Samuel Gibbs, for on Tuesday 26th May 2015 06.00 UTC

Next time you come back to your car and find it unlocked it might not be because you forgot to lock it – a thief sitting nearby might have actually stopped you locking your car without you knowing.

For years science fiction has depicted criminals, governments and security forces being able to block signals with radio jammers. Now criminals in the UK have started to get their hands on jammers and are using them to break into cars.

A recent incident caught on camera by a passerby at the Manchester Fort Shopping Park has highlighted just how easy it is to stop people being able to use their remote central locking car keys.

Carpark jamming captured by passerby Autumn DePoe-Hughes. (Needs sound)

These keys use radio waves to communicate with a receiver inside the car. The key sends a signal to the car with a unique identifier and a command to either lock or unlock the car. But the wireless communication, like any other radio usage, can be jammed.

A device can be used to flood the radio spectrum used by the keys with interference, which stops the low-power system of the remote car keys from working.

Many cars that use radio keys no longer have separate key locks for manual operation, so the jammer can stop a driver from either locking or unlocking their car using their key.

As long as the owner doesn’t realise what’s going on, car thieves then have potentially a field of open cars to plunder.

The incident in Manchester showed that an entire open car park can easily be covered by jammers.

A spokesperson for Greater Manchester Police told the Guardian that “GMP is not aware of any reports from the public regarding the jamming of their car’s central locking frequency at Manchester Fort Shopping Park” and appealed for any victims to come forward.

woman locking a car
Those concerned are advised to make sure they check that their car door is locked. Photograph: Barry Gnyp/Getty Images/Uppercut RF

In December last year, a 25-year-old man was convicted of using a signal jammer to break into cars in the Greater Manchester area. Michael Fennell used a signal jammer bought outside of the UK for just £35 to target central Manchester car parks.

The jammer was used to prevent victims from locking their cars without their knowledge. Fennell simply opened the doors leaving no trace of the intrusion and leaving victims unaware that they had been targeted.

Judge David Hernandez jailed Fennell for eight months at Manchester Crown Court, saying at his sentencing: “These devices are becoming readily available – there needs to be a very clear message sent out to the public: if you commit an offence like this where you deliberately go out to target the property of other people, having bought a jammer, you will go to prison immediately.”

More and more cars rely on wireless technology for security and operation. A popular feature called keyless entry, which simply requires the presence of a key near to or within a car to keep it unlocked and operational relies on a constant wireless signal that could be jammed.

Car companies are aware of the possibility of these kinds of attacks. Vehicle theft is now the lowest it has been since 1968 and has dropped 70% in the last 10 years.

A spokeswoman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said: “The automotive industry continues to work tirelessly to stay one step ahead of criminals by working closely with police, insurers and security experts.”

“However, to ensure thefts continue to fall, it is crucial that authorities across the country have a unified approach to collect more detailed data about how vehicles are stolen, so that both manufactures and motorists are best placed to keep their vehicles secure.”

For those worried about jammers, the advice is make sure your car is locked before walking away. Watch for the flash of lights and sounds that indicate the car has successfully locked all doors. Manually check that the door is locked and do not leave valuables in view inside the car.

Those concerned that a jammer is being used within range of their car can also report the incident to the police and are advised not to leave their vehicle unattended.

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