Much ado has been made about the possibility of someone hacking today’s internet-connected vehicles. Thankfully, that hasn’t really come to bear quite yet—except in the shadowy realm of stolen cars, where thieves have already perfected the art of using a relay device to trick keyless-entry vehicles into thinking the key fob is present, unlocking the doors, and starting the engine. Gone in 60 seconds? More like 23.
That’s all the time it took for a pair of thieves to steal Danny Talbot’s new Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedan on Thursday morning, as seen in the startling surveillance video he posted on Facebook as a warning to other owners. The two men appear in his driveway at 12:42 a.m. with the tablet-like devices; 23 seconds later, they’re casually driving off in his car. How can a modern luxury sedan be so easy to steal?
These kinds of thefts, which are known as relay attacks or relay hacks, exploit a fairly obvious flaw in the way keyless entry and push-button start systems work. When you try to open a locked door, the car sends out a signal looking for the owner’s key fob and will unlock if it detects it. This signal only reaches out a few feet, so one thief stands next to the car and holds one of the relay devices.
As he pulls on a door handle, that first device grabs the signal from the car and beams it to the second relay device—which the second thief is using to scan the front wall of the house (where hopefully the unsuspecting owner has hung his keys) like a metal detector. The goal is to line up the two relay devices and the fob so that the signal gets back to the car and unlocks it, as if the thieves are holding the keys themselves. And once the car is open, it’s just a matter of repeating the process to get it started.
There are a few problems with this method later on down the road (namely, you can’t turn the car off), but it’s become a foolproof way to steal most modern cars with keyless entry systems and key fobs within radio range. We highlighted a video showing two men steal another Mercedes in about a minute in England last November, and if this month’s version is any indication, tech-savvy thieves are getting better at it every day.
Experts say taking your keys away from the front door, placing them in a metal box, or following the manufacturers instructors to deactivate the fob each night can help foil these relay attacks, as can a good old fashioned steering wheel club.
As for Danny Talbot, he’s still without his car. The thieves also managed to deactivate the tracking function, and he wrote on Facebook that his Mercedes-Benz app still shows it parked safely in his driveway. Fortunately, he seems to have a sense of humor about the whole thing.
“The funny thing was I walked the dog this morning and didn’t even notice it had been stolen. Had shower, etc. and walked outside thinking I had memory loss again leaving car down [at the] pub, but then realized I never went out last night,” he added.
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