Where do you park your car keys? Preventing relay attacks
Today’s car thieves just have to sniff a signal from outside your front door
Modern cars are typically fitted with a keyless entry or ‘smart key’ system that allows drivers to work the door locks, trunk or tailgate, and ignition without physically touching their key fob or remote. The thing is, those signals never sleep, and they can even help thieves make off with your car from afar.
The intelligent key fob and vehicle are electronically linked to one another, using a low-energy wireless communication signal. When drivers are in close proximity to their car or truck, the signals are validated and the vehicle is unlocked when the driver touches the door handle. Once inside, the ignition can be turned on, again, with no need to handle the physical key or remote. By design, this system intends to authenticate the communication signals and grant access to the vehicle only when the key fob and vehicle are in close proximity to one another — perhaps separated by just a few feet.
While parked, your vehicle continues to watch for the signal from its key fob, waiting to be unlocked, started up, and driven away. When that signal is detected, and confirmed to be within very close proximity to your Camry or F-150, access to the locks and ignition is granted.
The technology behind this system is enjoyed for its convenience by millions of drivers around the world every day, but there are two reasons to be careful about where and how you store your car’s key fobs when they’re not in use.
As it turns out, there’s a pretty serious reason to be careful about where (and how) you store your key fobs: relay attacks.
In this way, thieves bridge the proximity gap to trick your car into thinking its fob is just a foot or two away — even at a great distance.
A relay attack can be carried out in your driveway, perhaps by sniffing out a signal from the key fob inside your front door. In other cases, a thief may follow you into a shopping mall to pick up the key signal from your pocket, transmitting it to an accomplice that’s waiting near your car for the unlock.
The equipment used in these attacks is neither expensive nor difficult to find. In fact, when reporting on a rash of relay attacks of Toyota and Lexus models around the Ottawa area, CBC News reported that thieves were using a $200 signal amplifier.
In some cases, relay attacks are used to grant car thieves quick access to your interior, where valuable items can quickly be found and removed. In other cases, relay attacks are used to steal the entire vehicle, which may be driven into a shipping container and bound for overseas.
Another reason to rethink where you leave your keys is battery drain. Many variables affect the distance that car-to-fob communication signals can travel, and while intended to validate your specific key fob only in close proximity, the communication signals may reach out and engage with one another at a greater distance than what’s apparent to the driver.