September 17, 2019

Keeping one step ahead of the thieves

As criminals develop increasingly smart ways to get into your vans, so owners needs to respond in kind. Peter Ringham looks at some of the options.

Remember that old-fashioned steering wheel lock you dumped at the back of your garage sometime in the 1990s? Maybe you should retrieve it.

That’s because physical security looks set to come back into fashion as a consequence of the switch to keyless entry by many light commercial vehicle manufacturers. While keyless may be convenient, it has resulted in the inadvertent creation of a worrying security flaw which means thieves are having a field day, claim its critics.

An astonishing 89% of light commercials stolen in 2018, and subsequently recovered because they were fitted with one of Tracker’s devices which allowed their whereabouts to be located, were taken without the owner’s keys being present, says Tracker. That compares with 82% the year before; so the problem is escalating.

Keyless vehicle theft involves a thief holding a device up against a vehicle to capture the signal it sends to the key, explains the Association of British Insurers (ABI). The key may have been left lying on a table or hung on a hook on an office wall.

He then boosts this signal to a second device held against the front wall of the light commercial owner’s house or business premises by an accomplice which relays this signal to the key inside.

This fools key and van into thinking that they are both within the required 2m range of one another, says the ABI, allowing the van to be unlocked and started.

Because of the approach taken, this type of theft is sometimes referred to as a relay attack. The whole exercise may take no more than 20 to 30 seconds, warns the Master Locksmiths Association (MLA).

“Security has come a long way since vehicle crime peaked in the early 1990s,” says Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer at Thatcham Research, an independent body which advises motor manufacturers on security, safety, and accident repair. “However the layers of security added over the years count for nothing when they can be circumvented instantly by criminals using digital devices.”

Blocking pouch

So how can van owners protect themselves?  One option is to keep the key fob in a signal blocking pouch – sometimes known as a Faraday pouch – when the vehicle is not in use, the MLA advises. Make sure you keep the spare one in there too.

Pouch prices range from £5 to £25 and some are more effective than others. In certain cases they are designed primarily to shield credit cards points out Billyeald, and may not close fully if you put keys in too.

The only sure-fire way of seeing if one works or not is to put your key fob in it, stand next to your van, and see what happens.

In some cases the wireless signal on a key fob can be turned off, the MLA says.

Look in the driver’s manual to see if this is a possibility, the association suggests. If no reference is made to it, then contact the van’s maker or its local dealer.

At least one manufacturer is contemplating introducing a key fob with a sleep mode which powers down the signal if the fob has not been used for 40 seconds, thereby blocking it.

“While a rapid development in technology has dramatically improved the experience of drivers, it has also allowed criminals to exploit weaknesses in electronic security,” says National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for vehicle crime, deputy assistant commissioner, Graham McNulty.

“Action by motor manufacturers to tackle this high tech vulnerability, allied with owners taking some simple, inexpensive precautions will help put the brakes on this unwelcome trend,” says ABI motor policy adviser, Laurenz Gerger.

Thieves have also been employing a widely-available lock pick and decoder which can be bought online – perfectly legally – for as little as £20. They use it to pick the driver’s door lock and obtain the key code so that a new key can be cut.

Once that is done they go back to the van, unlock the doors, and programme the key’s chip using a laptop connected to the OBD – On Board Diagnostics – port. The vehicle can then be started and driven away.

The immobiliser does nothing to prevent this from happening because it is bamboozled into believing the key is the genuine article. If a factory-fitted alarm is present then it is simply over-ridden.

The whole exercise takes longer than capturing a signal from a key fob and is potentially riskier for the thief; but can be effective nevertheless.

One way of counteracting it is to fit a Replock.

Available from security products specialist Maple Fleet Services, it replaces the vehicle manufacturer’s door lock and is said to be capable of resisting an attack by the sort of pick thieves are using. Complete with its own key, it is designed to resist drilling too.

Something else that is worth installing is a lockable shield to protect the OBD port.

Suppliers include Locks 4 Vans, which also offers security shields for catalytic convertors. Thieves still attempt to steal them because they contain precious metals.

The Maple and Locks 4 Vans portfolios include a variety of supplementary slamlocks and deadlocks aimed at van owners who do not want to depend solely on locks fitted on the production line.

Those locks can in fact be protected by special steel shields which prevent thieves from getting at the lock mechanism and linkages. Armaplate is one of the best-known specialists in this area.

Installing deadlocks as close to the top of a van’s load area doors as possible can make an approach to theft known as peel-and-steal a bit more difficult.

It involves the perpetrator pushing his knee hard into a door, grasping the top, then literally peeling it away from the van.

Not an easy thing to do, agreed. However it can be possible because today’s light commercial bodies tend to be lightly constructed to keep down fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, and to allow the owner to carry a respectable payload within the gross weight limit.

Engineers who carry lots of expensive tools in their vans are a prime target for thieves. One way of securing those tools if you do not want to remove them every night is to house them in a steel vault (right) which can be bolted into the load area.

Van Vault offers vaults of this type with locks, which it says are resistant to picking, drilling and cutting.

While an alarm may scare off some thieves, many of them are also well aware that alarms are often ignored. One option could be to specify one that sends an urgent text message to your smartphone if it is triggered; so you can take appropriate action.

The above measures will be more effective if they are combined with some common-sense security procedures.

Always try to park your van with its doors against a wall and in a well-lit area. Never leave the keys in it and always lock it, even if you are only leaving it for a couple of minutes, because a couple of minutes is all thieves need to help themselves to your goods – and scarper.