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Thieves are using high-tech methods to drive off in high-tech cars

2018 Land Rover Range Rover Sport Td6 Review
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

The technology that automakers put in cars to make them more convenient can also allow thieves to grab a new set of wheels in record time. Stealing a car is no longer as simple as jamming a screwdriver behind the ignition barrel, but key code grabbers make breaking into (and, sometimes, driving off in) some late-model cars shockingly easy.

Many new and late-model cars are equipped with keyless entry and keyless start. These popular features let motorists unlock their car and start it without taking their key fob out of their pocket. The fob communicates with the car by emitting a code that’s picked up by an antenna normally hidden under one of the body panels. This works well in theory, but thieves cleverly found a way around it using a device called a grabber that’s readily available online. Amazon sells them for the price of a caramel Frappuccino from Starbucks.

The grabber receives and records the code emitted by the fob. It then transfers it to a booster, which in turn uses it to trick the car into thinking the key fob is near. Armed with this technology, thieves can enter your car without needing to break a window or bend a door, and they’re often able to start the engine. The catch is that the grabber must be positioned relatively close to the key fob to catch its code. It won’t work if the thief is a block away from where you park.

British magazine What Car? tested seven cars that are popular in the United Kingdom, though not all of them are sold in the United States. The worst performer is the DS 3 Crossback, a premium crossover made by Paris-based Peugeot. It took What Car?’s security experts five seconds to break into the car, and another five seconds to drive off in it. The Land Rover Discovery Sport was gone in 30 seconds. The standard Discovery was broken into in 20 seconds, but driving off in it was impossible.

The BMW X3 and the Ford Fiesta stood out as the best models tested by the magazine. Its security experts needed 40 seconds to get in, and another 20 seconds to start the engine. Best is a relative term here; the study suggests stealing a $41,000 SUV takes approximately one minute.

Automakers are turning to technology to fight high-tech car thefts. Some brands — including BMW and Mercedes-Benz — use motion detection sensors to turn the fob off when it’s not being used, like when it’s on your kitchen table. Not every company offers this feature, however. If you’re not sure whether your car has it, and if you think it’s at risk of getting stolen, it’s best to keep your key fob away from doors and windows to reduce the odds of someone interception the code it emits.

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