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Is Your Car a High-Tech Target? Protect Yourself Against Thieves

If you use a wireless key fob with a remote keyless system to open your car, you could be vulnerable to high-tech thieves.

Cars with keyless entry systems have made it convenient and quick to unlock a car door from a distance. Unfortunately, criminals have come up with three tricks to quietly open your car door, take everything they can find, and disappear without a trace.

Los Angeles-based New York Times Columnist Nick Bilton says cars in his area have been targeted several times in recent months.

"There’s a lot of people in my neighborhood that have had their cars broken into in a nontraditional way," Bilton told the  NBC4 I-Team.

He said he watched from his window recently as two teens approached his Prius in the driveway, and one pulled a small black device from her backpack.

"Somehow it unlocked the car," Bilton said. "When you walk up and pull the handle, that was how long it took. It’s not a complicated thing."

Security expert Jeff Zisner, owner of Aegis Security & Investigations, said the pair may have been using an electromagnetic pulse device that sends a shock wave to your car's circuitry, instantly unlocking the door.


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"(It) allows burglars to get into vehicles without ever breaking a piece of glass," Zisner said.

Another trick Zisner identified: Code-grabber devices, which are cheap, as small as a key fob, and can unlock cars by locating and duplicating remote key codes.

"It allows someone to get into your vehicle be essentially cloning your key," Zisner said.

Zisner says thieves are also using power amplifiers, which can be purchased online for less than $100.

Here’s how they work:

When a driver unlocks a car with a remote key fob, the car is communicating to the key by means of a unique radio frequency signal. Power amplifiers boost that signal strength, which makes the car "think" the key is closer than it actually is. In this way, a thief could make the car "talk to" the key fob, even if the fob is sitting on a counter inside the driver’s home.

There are ways to protect your key fob from being hacked, Zisner said.

  • Store your keys in the microwave. The door of the microwave doesn’t allow radio frequency signals to travel through it. Zisner said a refrigerator, or generally any metal box, will also block radio frequency signals.
  • Park in a garage. That way, Zisner said, you have a physical barrier, possibly a home alarm system, and even pets that will alert you if someone approaches your car.
  • If you must park outside, consider disabling your remote key system, and use your car key manually to enter your car. Zisner said disabling the system is a simple process in older cars. If you have a newer car, you may want to consult your dealer.
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