Monitoring modern vehicle thefts

February 9, 2024

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By Mike McGee, Senior Investigator, EFI Global.

With personal convenience comes potential vulnerability. The evolution of vehicle security began with a mechanical lock and key. This soon evolved to include a factory alarm system, before the industry moved to a key with a coded transponder chip. Then came the shift to a push-button start with an RF fob (remotes that transmit their signals using radio frequency) and coded transponder signal. Today, some vehicles even have a start command when it’s detected that a driver is seated.

Despite these security advancements, the United States is seeing near-record levels of vehicle thefts, which continue to increase, according to a report released by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). The report stated that nearly 500,000 vehicles were reported stolen nationwide in the first half of 2023, marking an increase of more than two percent compared to the first half of 2022. Insurers should remain vigilant, and take proactive and commonsense measures to help deter theft, such as to never leave your keys or key fob in your car, always lock doors and roll up windows, and never leave valuables in plain sight.

The evolution of vehicle thievery

With each evolution, the security system’s vulnerability has been pinpointed, exploited and weaponized to defeat it — allowing the vehicle to start and move without the factory cut keys or fobs.

In the past, vehicles depended on mechanical exterior door and trunk locks. A single or double cut metal key blade was used to operate the lock. In 60 seconds, thieves were able to pick, rake or destroy the lock mechanism — allowing access to the vehicle and the ignition’s switch drive mechanism. Even in 2020, some vehicles used no other security than a side cut metal blade to start the vehicle’s engine, enabling thefts to be carried out that much quicker.

Transponder-based security systems

A transponder, short for transmitter-responder, is an electronic device that receives a radio signal and automatically transmits a different signal. Within these systems, a programmed transponder chip is in the bow of the key or the FOBIK (smart key) housing. Each chip contains a security code specific to the vehicle it’s assigned to — much like a vehicle’s unique VIN number. The security codes and key cuts are stored with the vehicle’s manufacturer and can be accessed by properly credentialed locksmiths through a third party administrator as needed. 

There are several upsides to utilizing mechanical keys with programmed transponder codes, namely that two to four security systems must be manipulated to drive the car. The mechanical lock or attached ignition switch needs to be defeated to allow the electrical system to run, and the manufacturer’s anti-theft transponder-based engine inhibit system needs to be bypassed or recoded to accept the perpetrator’s code. If the vehicle is equipped with a steering lock, the mechanical linkage needs to be disabled. And in some cases, the transmission shift lock needs to be overridden or disabled.

Another common system is the FOBIK, a fob with an integrated key, that’s been around since 1996 and became more common in 2006 model vehicles. Unfortunately, the signal transmitted by the remote keyless entry command can be blocked by any device capable of transmitting a signal of a specific frequency, including numerous common devices such as garage door openers or Wii tennis rackets. Flip keys are another type of fob that uses a metal key to start the vehicle, which do not continuously transmit a signal.

But chip keys have several drawbacks. The mechanical ignition lock can be picked or physically destroyed, and vehicles with on-board programming capability can be reprogrammed with no special equipment required, in just 30 minutes. As far as flip keys go, most can be cloned in an exact duplicate, thus, the vehicle accepts the code(s) as it would for the original key.

Still, transponder-based key systems largely offer higher levels of protection, enhanced reliability, and unlike a physical key that can be stolen or copied with the intention of gaining unauthorized access to a vehicle, a key fob can be quickly  reprogrammed by a professional automotive locksmith in only a few minutes. The same technology is being used by thieves to clear your key code from the vehicle and programme their fob with a new code allowing the vehicle to start. It is critical every insured learns about their vehicle’s own key system and its subsequent vulnerabilities, and considers these factors when choosing a vehicle to use, rent or purchase.

Remote start systems

Vehicles with remote start security systems have extra layers of protection embedded. Doors must be closed and locked before the engine is allowed to start, and if the engine runs for 15 minutes it automatically shuts down. Additionally, if unauthorized entry is made through a door, the system shuts the engine off. If a person enters through a broken window, as soon as the brake pedal is depressed to move the shifter, the engine shuts down too.

Smart keys are great for their convenience: just a push of a button to start the vehicle if the key signal is within three feet of the interior receiving antenna. Entering the locked vehicle requires the smart key to be within a specific distance of the door handle, minimizing the probability of theft. And, if the vehicle was started with a proper smart key, it can be driven without the presence of that key, but will not restart once shut off without the proper security code.

Opposite to the common misconception that the use of a remote starter will increase chances of becoming victim to vehicle theft, remote systems can actually help prevent it. Remote starters’ commonly built-in features such as automatic locking and motor-shutoff ensure a high level of security and safety precaution.

The investigation: determining if a vehicle is stolen

An insurance fraud investigator within a special investigation unit (SIU) would first lock down the insured’s statement of the occurrence and perform extensive research on the case. The investigator performs thorough examinations of the lock mechanisms and tests the vehicle’s security systems. They use resources such as diagnostic computer scanners to detect any anomalies in the various systems and use key-read resources — i.e. information recorded within the key including mileage recorded, last date and time used, how many keys are programmed and more.

The use of Berla technology, specialized hardware and software that retrieves the information stored in a vehicle’s infotainment system — a system of components that offer a range of comfort and safety functions, including radio and navigation — is critical. All vehicle events are recorded. This can include starts, stops, doors opening or doors closing, hard acceleration or braking, and dates and times of each individual occurrence. 

Depending on the vehicle’s specific infotainment system even information on connections to the vehicle — phones or Bluetooth devices along with their unique identifier number — can be obtained. Phone connections not only reveal the phone’s contact list, but also call logs, dates, times and locations where each call was made, and where the phone was when a call was received or missed. 

Navigation and track logs may be available as well, that keep tabs on the vehicle along an entire route of travel on a particular date. Of course, acquiring this type of data from the vehicle infotainment system, or the event data recorder information, requires the written consent of the vehicle owner.

Looking forward

Despite the growing sophistication of anti-theft and engine inhibit systems, any vehicle can be stolen. A 2022 Cadillac, for example, can be placed into reprogram mode using a paper clip. 

Regardless of the means a person uses to commit a theft, proper investigation and research can determine if a vehicle was stolen or if some other motive — a mechanical failure, accident, or DUI, for example — was behind the claim. As vehicle claims reach the billions each year, more cooperation between agencies will be paramount in minimizing vehicle thefts.

Some of these concepts were presented at the 2023 International Association of Special Investigation Units (IASIU) Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas.