‘Signal boosting’ could explain 30% spike in car thefts in the GTA

By: Jessica Mach on December 4, 2018

Thieves in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have found a new and discreet way to break into cars, which may explain why car thefts have seen a big spike over the past year.

The method involves rerouting the signals of wireless car key fobs, and takes advantage of one common practice: people storing their car keys by the front door of their homes.

Every wireless key fob is constantly broadcasting a signal in order to communicate with its assigned vehicle. When the fob is close enough to the vehicle, the vehicle will open and start running.

Jeff Bates, a Markham-based automotive security specialist, thinks that thieves are using a “relay” method to amplify a key fob’s signal so that it will reach and open its assigned car — even when the key fob is all the way inside the driver’s home. The thief will approach the driver’s front door with a device to catch and amplify a key fob’s signal. The device then reroutes the signal to a second device placed by the car, which captures the signal and opens the car.

Because you don’t need a car’s fob to be inside the car to get it to start or to drive it, once the car is open and on, a thief can just take off.

All of this can take place quietly — and many drivers find themselves home while their cars are being stolen from right under their noses.

Bates’ explanation may account for the 30% rise in GTA car thefts compared to the same time last year. Victims have reported seeing no signs of forced entry when their cars are recovered later.

What can consumers do? One easy step is to stop keeping your car keys by the front door.

“If you do live in a house, try to leave your keys either upstairs or … as far away from the vehicle as possible,” said Bates.

Another measure you can take is to store your keys in something that can block your fob’s radio signals, like a faraday cage, steel box, or key pouch.

The scenario may seem far fetched, but the evidence is hard to deny.

“It's pretty insane just to think about something like that even happening,” said Bates. “I guess that's what they're doing these days, right? If that's what they can do, that's what they will do.”