Five ways to help stop your car getting stolen – advice from car security experts

Image of a car parked in an empty underground car park

As car thieves become smarter in their methods, industry experts offer advice on making sure your car stays with its rightful owner.

By Shilpa Ganatra

“Yesterday I saw a picture of a chop shop that was raided by the police in Dagenham, Essex,” says Dr Ken German, a vehicle crime consultant with 60 years’ experience, referring to the illegal breakers’ yards where stolen vehicles are processed. “There were motorbikes half-stripped, Range Rovers and Mercs all half-stripped too. They put them in containers, which are enormous. For about £1,500, they can send it across the border to the Middle East or Africa where there’s a strong demand for the cars and their parts.”

While every vehicle is worth something in a chop shop and therefore attractive to a thief, a recent look at Aviva claims data found Mercedes and BMWs were often targeted, with Land Rovers the most common luxury car brand stolen. Steve Launchbury, Senior Automotive Security Research Engineer at Thatcham Research explains: “It's not that Land Rovers have a lesser immobiliser system, it's just that they are top of the shopping list for criminals. They’re a prestigious brand, there’s a market abroad, and there’s a higher demand for second-hand parts here too.”

It’s also the case that “four-wheeled drives are always popular for war zones across the world,” says German. “Some of them have a life expectancy of 10 days.”

So while petty criminals are more likely to nick items from your car  given half the chance, criminal gangs of car thieves plan ahead of time to swipe the whole vehicle.

“They’re organised criminals that have invested in £20,000+ worth of kit to plug into these vehicles,” says Launchbury. “They pick their vehicles carefully, and very much do their homework beforehand.”

With technology improving, few are fishing keys from inside a home’s hallway using a fishing rod, and fewer are hot-wiring a car like in old movies. So what are the most effective ways to keep their light fingers away from your steering wheel in this day and age? Here are our experts’ top tips.

Take basic security precautions

While there are advanced methods to keep your car away from crooks, the basics are often the most effective. A good start is making sure that the car is either secured in a garage, or kept in a well-lit area. Also, triple check that the car is locked. We might think that it’s still tricky to steal a car when the doors are unlocked, but it’s the inactive alarm that makes the difference. “If the alarm is going off, it immediately puts the criminal under time pressure, and makes it more difficult to tamper with the immobiliser system,” explains Launchbury.

Use a steering wheel lock

Steering wheel locks aren’t thief-proof “but they’re bright yellow things on the steering wheel, and if people fit them, that would suggest that the thief would move on to an easier target. They don't want the fight, basically,” says Launchbury. You can also fit security devices to your clutch and gear stick to make things even more difficult for the potential criminal.

Beware of car hijackers

Such is the lucrative market that thieves might go to extreme measures to steal pricey vehicles. “Unfortunately, if it's a desirable car, the worst can happen and these thieves will stop you at traffic lights with weapons and tell you to get out,” says German. Locking your car from the inside as a matter of routine can reduce the chances of them gaining entry. If you’re threatened, prioritise your own safety rather than your vehicle – especially as good car insurance will cover it.

Protect electronic keys

“The motor industry put a lot of development work into making our lives easy so we could just get in the car and start it without needing to take keys out,” says German. “But that means thieves can buy signal grabbers, and even if you have the keys under your pillow, they can hold it up to the wall of your house, grab the signal it’s transmitting, open your car and drive away. Once the engine stops they can't restart it again, but by that time, it's probably in a chop shop somewhere.”

Keyless entry systems can emit a signal up to 50 metre distance, while signal grabbers can harness transmissions up to 10 metres away. “You can buy signal grabbers quite cheaply on eBay now,” says German. “They should be banned but they’re not unfortunately. It’s a bone of contention with the governments, with police, with industry…”

It means the onus is on the owner to stop signal grabbers from working, perhaps by storing the key (and the spare) far from the car, or turning off the signals on the key if possible. Another solution is to store keys in a Faraday pouch, metal box or even tin foil, as these cunningly block the electromagnetic waves from signal grabbers.

Use a tracking device

Many top-end vehicles are already fitted with tracking devices that can show its location, or even shut down the fuel system when prompted. “But organised crime gangs know a lot about each model of car, including how many trackers it has and where they are,” say German. “They’ll probably park it up somewhere to check. If they’re in doubt, they’ll leave the car for a few days. If they come back to it and it’s still there, they can be confident that it’s not tracked.” So hiding your own tracking device might also prove useful.

Good insurance makes all the difference 

Ultimately, “if they want a car, they’ll have it somehow – like one recently got taken in a showroom from the roof,” says German. Solid insurance – like Aviva Car Insurance – means all is not lost if your car is targeted by a tenacious car thief. But do all you can to stay one step ahead of them, and they might well return to the chop shop empty-handed.

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