How Do Thieves Steal Keyless Cars? (And How to Stop Them)

Modern cars most often use transponder-type key fobs, rather than physical ones. How do thieves steal new keyless cars, and how can you stop them?
How Do Thieves Steal Keyless Cars

These days, most thieves have moved beyond the hotwiring you might see in an action movie. Modern cars have a transponder chip in the ignition key that must match the car to start it. Keyless or keyed, it seems to be no problem for car thieves; more than one million vehicles were stolen in 2022, a jump from the prior year by 7%. Over the past five years, the number of stolen cars in the U.S. has doubled. Luxury brands like Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Porsche, Tesla, and more, are increasingly affected by keyless car theft. But how do thieves steal cars with transponder keys?

In the movies, it looks like it takes a couple of minutes for an experienced thief to smash a car window and hotwire a car. But experienced criminals are looking for opportunity, access, and an easy target.  

Once cars began using electronic keys, criminals learned an easier method over the old smash and grab; just steal the key. Thieves can steal keys left in mounted lock boxes at car dealerships. If they’re clever, they may be able to just snag the key off the wall. Criminals can also break into the boxes with a bolt cutter after hours. Thieves can steal keyless cars using various techniques that also exploit vulnerabilities in the keyless entry and ignition systems technology, too.

“If a thief has the right knowledge and equipment, modern cars can be incredibly easy to steal, and stealing them is actually getting easier rather than harder. The very technology that was supposed to make cars more secure is actually making life easier for criminals.”

Let’s look at all the issue of keyless car theft and how you can prevent it.

The Trouble with “Keyless” Cars (That Have Transponder Keys)

The Trouble With Transponder Keys

Today, thieves don’t have to overcome a lot of obstacles in the car itself to steal it. They can simply use the programmed signal from the car’s keyless entry fob. But how do they get that signal?

If the keys lack a signal-blocker shield (called an RFID blocker), thieves can use a transponder device, which you can pick up online on the cheap. That electronic device can capture the keyless entry code as it’s sent from the fob to the car. They can use that captured signal to open the car door with no alarm, start it, and drive away. It basically tricks the car into thinking the key is nearby. This technique is also known as key cloning. No matter what you call it, it’s an attractive way for criminals to take advantage of modern technology and turn it against us.

This technique has now combined with something called “relay theft.” Relay thieves work in pairs. The thieves use a transmitter device. One thief stands by the car with the transmitter. The other goes near the dealership to try to pick up a signal from a key that’s hanging from the lockbox.

There’s also a technique called signal jamming. Thieves use devices that emit radio signals to block the communication between the key fob and the car. When the owner presses the lock button on the key fob, the signal is jammed, preventing the car from locking. If you’re not paying attention, you walk away thinking everything is fine. The thief can then gain access to the unlocked vehicle.

Some thieves exploit vulnerabilities in the car’s onboard diagnostic port (OBD port) to connect a programming device. By reprogramming a blank key fob, they gain access to the car and can start it with this duplicate key.

Another technique is to hack the car’s immobilizer system. Keyless cars use this system to prevent the engine from turning over without the correct electronic key. Skilled hackers can exploit vulnerabilities in the car’s immobilizer system software to bypass or disable this feature and start the vehicle.

Stealing a car today is easier than it’s ever been. Even worse is the fact that keyless car theft is increasing. A study in late 2022 showed that keyless cars are actually twice as likely to be stolen as traditional cars with keys.

When coupled with the expertise of serious, experienced criminals, car dealerships have a lot to worry about. Fortunately, there are a variety of methods to stop criminals in their tracks.

How to Prevent Keyless Car Theft at Your Auto Dealership


Making your lot less attractive to thieves is and should always be a top priority. If you make it harder for criminals to steal car parts or the car itself, they will look for other, less attractive targets of opportunity. Some of the standard methods and tools for preventing theft at an auto dealership include:

See How Simple It Can Be To Secure Your Business.

  • Lighting

    Having car lots and the dealership fully illuminated is critical. This includes back lots and any secondary lots you may have for extra inventory.

  • Secondary storage

    Keep your most expensive vehicles (with pricey parts) inside. Limit access to the dealership's lot and storage areas to authorized personnel only. Use access control measures such as electronic key cards or biometric systems to restrict entry.

  • Wheel locks

    Locking the wheels may be a good additional investment for expensive cars that have to remain outside.

  • GPS units

    Tracking devices may already be installed on some vehicles. Consider installing immobilizers, GPS tracking devices, or other anti-theft systems on all the vehicles in your inventory. These measures can deter theft and aid in recovery if a theft occurs.

  • Keep dealer plates and keys under lock and key

    Don’t use lock boxes on the cars themselves. Store vehicle keys in a secure location, preferably in a locked cabinet or safe. Limit access to the key storage area to trusted employees only, and keep a record of who has access to the keys.

  • Secure the perimeter of your lots

    Fencing is a necessity these days. Seal off entrances after hours with trucks or a secure steel gate, so thieves can’t drive in flatbeds. Implement a robust physical security system beyond perimeter fencing, to include surveillance cameras, and well-lit areas. Make sure all entry points, including gates and doors, are secure and monitored. Consider a virtual security guard team to monitor surveillance cameras, watching every angle of your property 24/7/365.

  • Develop security protocols

    Train your employees in the rigors of locking down your inventory. Educated dealership staff about keyless car theft techniques and the importance of rigorous security measures. Train your teams on proper key handling procedures, including securely storing and returning keys after use. Follow these best practices every day to the letter.

  • Enforce a strict vehicle sign-out process

    Use software or inventory management systems to track and monitor the movement of keys and vehicles within the dealership. This can help identify any discrepancies or potential thefts.

  • Park cars with the e-brakes on and the tires turned in one direction

    It’s a small detail, but it will make the car harder to tow away.

  • Audit your protocols and improve them

    Criminals are ever-vigilant. You should be, too. Conduct regular audits of your key inventory and vehicle records to identify any discrepancies or missing keys. This will help you detect any potential internal theft or security breaches. Stay informed about the latest security practices and technological advancements in automotive security. Keep in touch with manufacturers and security experts to understand potential vulnerabilities and recommended countermeasures.

  • Collaborate with law enforcement

    Develop a relationship with local law enforcement agencies and share information regarding vehicle theft trends or suspicious activities. This collaboration can help prevent theft and aid in the recovery of stolen vehicles.

All of these security efforts will help secure the lot, but they aren’t fool proof. For a truly effective security strategy to work, we recommend combining it with  video surveillance and on-site or virtual security guards. Reliable modern video surveillance keeps a set of eyes on your lots at all times, protecting you against not just car theft but also vandalism and trespassers. But security cameras alone won’t deter car thieves. You need an integrated strategy that combines the best of technology with the best in human response. 

How Modern Security Cameras Protect a Car Lot

  • Integrate audio and visual deterrents to scare away criminals

  • Use artificial intelligence (AI) software to automate the behaviors of these cameras in a way that improves their response

  • Work well with virtual security guards that monitor all of the security cameras on site 24/7/365

  • Connect wirelessly to the internet

  • Offer automated notifications, sending you a text when there is any suspicious activity

  • Mobile solar-powered cameras can float around your facility for additional protection

These are just a few of the options available to protect your business. Pro-Vigil is the nation’s leading security provider for auto dealerships. We specialize in the most cutting-edge video surveillance tools and can help keep your investments safer. Chat with us and see how simple it can be to secure your lot.

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