Smart keys, slick crooks and car theft

Your car’s “smart key” could result in a high tech car theft, or as a couple of New Jersey car thieves proved, your car can be stolen by a simple sleight of hand.

The high-tech route was discovered by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, which found that the smart, or proximity, key could be fooled into sharing its code with bad guys instead of communicating with the car it’s supposed to be unlocking.

2010 Porsche Panamera 4S

2010 Porsche Panamera 4S

The smart key allows the key holder to actually leave the key in pocket or purse, open the car with a tug on the door handle or the touch of a button and then start the car by pushing a button. The key has to be close to the car, however, to make the necessary radio connection.

But researchers fooled the system with a pair of antennas to transmit the signals from the car to the key by placing one antenna very close to the car and another within several feet of the smart key. By doing so, the researchers could intercept and relay the signals so that the car’s computer would think the key was within range. Either way, the system worked in eight of ten cars from different manufacturers, allowing the car’s door to be opened, the engine started and the car driven away.

The technique, however, still requires the key still to be within 100 yards—if more than intended by the manufacturer—and quite likely within view of the real smart key. A thief would have to be rather brazen, though that’s never stopped crooks before.

There’s a simpler way to use the smart key to steal a car. According to the New York Post, the method used in New Jersey involved a pair of men who asked to test drive a Porsche Panamera at a dealership, but when returning the key to the sales representative, palmed the real key and turned over a fake. The thieves later returned to drive the car away at their leisure.

High tech? Hardly, but just as brazen and the Porsche is just as gone.

The moral of the story is that the best way to prevent theft is good old-fashioned awareness…and being smarter than the key and the crook.