From screwdrivers to fridges

Barry Knight explains how technology has changed the nature of car theft

"2015 saw the first reported increase in vehicle thefts since 2003, a trend that has continued throughout the 2016 and 2017 with some regions recording increases of up to 189%. Covéa Insurance’s Barry Knight examines how vehicle technology has changed the nature of car theft.

Do you remember the 80’s and 90’s and the ‘joyriding’ craze? Cars were stolen and driven at high speed before being dumped or set alight, either before they ran out of fuel or when the driver got bored. During this period vehicle security was very basic; most cars could be broken into with a flat head screwdriver and simply hot-wired, or have their ignition lock broken.

Home Office figures for 1990 show the most stolen models were the Ford Capri, Ford Cortina, Ford Escort and Vauxhall Astra. These were by no means ‘high end’ or high value cars, but they were cars people enjoyed driving (well, maybe with the exception of the Cortina!). During this period ‘crook locks’ became the main line of defence. These were mechanical devices that locked in place over the steering wheel or gear stick.

However, in 1998 it became mandatory for new vehicles sold in the UK to be fitted with electronic immobilisers, significantly reducing vehicle thefts as it was no longer possible to hot-wire a car, you actually needed a key!

But this reprise was short-lived. New legislation in 2008 created a new opportunity for thieves - Euro 5 legislation required the On Board Diagnostic (OBD) port to be freely accessible for repair and maintenance with the consequence of allowing the OBD port to be accessible to ANYONE!

Further legislation compounded this, stipulating that the equipment to gain access to the OBD port also had to be freely available, effectively giving open access to OBD ports through the unrestricted sale of equipment to reprogram a blank key.

With ready access to OBD ports and programming software, thieves and criminals soon seized the opportunity. ‘Stolen to order’ became more common, with gangs targeting specific makes and models of cars for ready buyers waiting in the wings. They operated internationally, shipping vehicles all over the world. Top of the list were large 4x4 vehicles like Range Rovers and the BMW X5 for shipment to countries like Africa, Cyprus, Malaysia and Burma where poor road conditions and import duties of up to 125% created strong demand and a lucrative market.

This trend gave rise to defensive ‘OBD blockers’ and aftermarket devices like On Board Defence’s OBD Portector which prevent the transmission of data from the OBD port unless the owner ‘unlocks’ it, for example, for servicing.

Unfortunately, a new theft trend is now on the rise and being blamed for the recently reported increase in vehicle thefts. ‘Relay theft’ so called because it usually involves two people, takes advantage of the push-start ignition common on many newer vehicles.

This sees thieves using a booster to increase the signal from the car key while in relatively close proximity to the vehicle, usually inside the home. The car can then be electronically unlocked. Once inside the vehicle, the signal is again boosted enabling the push start button to be used and the car driven off, with a new key programed away from the vehicle owner’s property.

So how can motorists guard against this? Initially, the advice given was not leave car keys near the front door. Early boosting devices had a range of about 10 metres so this worked, however, signal boosting devices are now effective at much larger distances, potentially up to 100 metres

The answer is to store your key somewhere that blocks the signal. A faraday box or an RFID pouch can be purchased online for less than £10 which will block the signal coming from your key. Failing that, a refrigerator will do an equally good job! 

So where will car thieves go next? The never-ending cycle of theft trends and defences could reach a new level with the arrival of driverless cars on our roads. Ironically, against high-tech car theft, the most old-fashioned low-tech defence in the form of crook-lock style devices could still prove among the most effective!"

Article originally published in Bodyshop Magazine (June 2018)




Notes to Editors:

About Covéa Insurance

Covea Insurance plc is the UK underwriting business of leading French mutual insurance group Covéa, who are number 1 for property and liability insurance in France, generating over 16.3 billion Euros in premiums in 2017.  

Covéa Insurance looks after the insurance needs of over 1.5 million policyholders; delivering financial reassurance through its Standard & Poor’s A+ stable rating, as a guaranteed subsidiary of Covéa. 

The company offers motor, household, protection, pet, mid and high net worth insurance and a range of commercial insurance products, through a range of distribution channels. Employing over 1800 people, Covéa Insurance has a strong people and service ethos, having Investors In People Gold accreditation and is signatory to the HM Treasury Women In Finance Charter. It also has World Class service accreditation from the Institute of Customer Service for its Motor Claims, Home Claims and Underwriting Services teams as well as Chartered Insurer status for its Commercial and Mid/High Net Worth business.

In 2018, Covéa Insurance were recipients of the Personal Lines Insurer of the Year award at both the British Insurance Awards and the Insurance Times Awards and was the top rated insurer in the Insurance Times Broker Service Survey for both Personal and Commercial Lines.

Back to list

Media Contacts

For media enquiries, please contact Stephanie Cox.

Alternatively, please call or email

E: Dianne Smith T: 07796 695 090