Company car and van fleets are being urged to use anti-theft measures from the past as part of a nationwide campaign to counter a wave of high-tech car crime.
Police and insurance experts believe the visibility of brightly-coloured, 1980s-style immobilisers such as steering wheel, gear lever and handbrake clamps will deter gangs carrying gadgets that reprogramme the electronics controlling keyless entry and start systems.
Ian Wallace, from the insurance repair research centre Thatcham, told Fleet News: “Owners who want to keep their vehicles off the thieves’ shopping lists can protect themselves with a range of telemetry options, but we would also advise the fitting of old-fashioned devices.
“Hefty metal bar locks for the steering, gearstick or handbrake might be 1980s technology but they work well.
“A thief could probably remove items like these in time, but if he has the choice of cars parked in a street, he’s most likely not to bother if he sees one on the car he picks out.
“They’re really good deterrents – because the thief wants a quick getaway, chances are he’ll move on and look for an easier steal.”
Keyless vehicle theft has surged in the wake of a change in European legislation which countered anti-competitiveness by making it easier to obtain replacement keys.
Only hours after being stolen, high-end Audis, BMWs, Range-Rovers and Ford Transit vans are often exported whole, or in parts, to supply lucrative illegal markets as far away as Africa.
“Unfortunately, the door was opened when the law forced vehicle manufacturers to make diagnostic ports easier to reach and reprogramming equipment more accessible outside dealer networks,” said Wallace.
As a result, thieves have been able to re-programme a blank key.
It’s a threat that has been taken into account in the latest criteria Thatcham uses to assess vehicle security and it is working with manufacturers, insurers and the police to produce the best solutions.
Wallace continued: “We’re looking at software upgrades, but inevitably, information relating to these will find its way to the wrong people.
“There is a lot to be said for more physical solutions such as alarming the ports and repositioning them so they are less accessible, and Audi is using boot-mountings to make their ports harder to reach for the thief who doesn’t have a lot of time.
“We feel manufacturers should also consider introducing better marking methods as a further deterrent to selling stolen parts. We’re listing a wide range of aftermarket solutions on our website.”
The warning comes after BMW says it has fixed a security flaw that could have allowed hackers to unlock the doors of up to 2.2 million Rolls-Royce, Mini and BMW vehicles (fleetnews.co.uk, February 3).
The German manufacturer said it had taken steps to eliminate possible breaches by encrypting the communications inside the car using the same HTTPS (hypertext transfer protocol secure) standard used in web browsers for secure transactions such as e-commerce or banking.
Meanwhile, one week after recently launching its Operation Endeavour campaign against keyless car theft, Scotland Yard reported 84 arrests, and an 800-strong team of officers from the Met, Kent, Essex, Hampshire, Surrey and Thames Valley forces seized 222 vehicles after monitoring 20 arterial roads.
In another operation, a search at Felixstowe docks found five Range Rovers believed to have been stolen from Surrey, South Woodford and Islington in containers bound for Kenya, and hundreds of parts from a dozen BMWs stolen from east London heading for Cyprus.
“One container had stolen bikes packed around the vehicle parts to disguise the true contents, which we believe would have been re-exported,” said detective chief superintendent Carl Bussey.
“While this operation is focused on organised vehicle theft in London, we know this crime is impacting communities across the UK, and are working closely with our partners nationally and sharing intelligence to target the criminals.”