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Vehicle Theft and Key Security [Hardfacts]


In recent years the provision of better locks, alarms and immobilisers by vehicle manufacturers has greatly improved their security. However, as vehicles have become harder to break into or steal, thieves have begun to pay greater attention to theft of vehicle keys – as once obtained these then often permit quick and easy theft of the vehicle to which they relate.

This Hardfacts outlines common forms of key related vehicle theft and some possible security measures to adopt.

When we talk about a "key" what do we mean? Traditionally we imagine a portable device having a metal key bit which is inserted into a door lock/ignition switch to both unlock the vehicle then start its engine.  These days most keys retain those functions, but have evolved to include an integral transmitter to unlock a vehicle/unset any alarm/immobiliser. In more recent years some vehicles, especially higher value/specification cars, are being provided with "keyless" systems. i.e. where the local presence of a driver having a transmitter about their person provides access to the car, the engine then being started by push button or biometric recognition system.

Where the word "key is used in this Hardfacts it should, according to context, be read as potentially referring to any type of portable device used to access/operate a vehicle.

Those in charge of vehicles, whether as owner, driver or a business with custody, need to be aware of the risk of vehicle theft. In particular, they need to adopt suitable security measures to safeguard vehicles keys -  not least because it is not uncommon for vehicle insurers to restrict or exclude theft of a vehicle when a key is left in it, or the key was in some other way readily available to a thief.

Many larger owners/businesses will already have a car user's handbook or similar document, into which some of the advice contained in this Hardfacts may usefully be incorpated.

What can be done?
To reduce the risk of vehicle theft, you need to consider several factors.

As a first step you should take note of the types of vehicle you have and consider their likely value/attraction to thieves. Next you should consider who has access to/use of them and their awareness of the theft risk. Finally you should check where all the vehicle keys (inc any spares) are kept when not in use.

You may also want to consider the possible impact of the loss of any vehicle, i.e. any ongoing business costs/disruption that may flow from it.

Armed with this information you will be better able to move on to consider how your vehicles currently are, or might better be, protected. When doing so it can be helpful to think of vehicle security in terms of three principal areas:

  •      When being driven/in use
  •      When parked/stored at business/commercial premises
  •      When parked at driver’s homes

Some examples of possibly suitable security measures within each of these three areas follow, but in short steps need to be taken to ensure that all involved are both aware of vehicle theft risks and also take all possible steps to safeguard the security of vehicle keys.

Vehicles Being Driven/In Use
High value vehicles can be targeted for theft whilst in use, in one of two likely ways.

1. Car Jacking
Here thieves use the element of surprise to evict the driver before making off with the vehicle. Two methods being popular:

a)     As a vehicle slows/stops at a traffic junction or parking area, thieves approach and open an un-locked door, then forcibly evict the driver/gain access to the keys    before driving off.
b)     A vehicle is followed to a quiet location, e.g. car park, rural road or home address and caused to stop, e.g. by flashing car headlights or even bumping into it. Once stationary, the driver is forcibly evicted/access to the keys gained and the vehicle driven off.

Vehicles with a lone driver, especially women/the elderly, seem to be thieves preferred target.

To reduce this risk drivers should:

  • Keep doors locked when driving
  • Be alert to/aware of persons ‘loitering’ at the side of the road. 
  • Choose a safe place when parking, then lock and leave the vehicle swiftly.
  • If being pursued, either call the police on a mobile (‘hands free’) phone or drive to a police station or a busy well-lit location before stopping - perhaps sounding the car horn to attract attention if feeling threatened.

To reduce this risk owners should:

  • Consider fitting high value/high risk vehicles with tracking devices.
  • Displaying deterrent signs warning of the presence of tracking devices.

2. Temporarily Unattended Vehicles
Here, thieves target a vehicle for theft when the driver has temporarily left it to undertake other tasks.  

To reduce this risk drivers should:

  • Always remove keys and lock a vehicle when it is left unattended.
  • Always remove keys if leaving the driver’s seat to operate different parts of a vehicle, e.g. a lorry tailgate or rear doors.

To reduce this risk owners should:

Put all keys required to operate different parts of a vehicle onto a single tamper proof (sealed) key ring. By this means drivers are forced to take all keys with them.

Vehicles Parked/Stored at Business/Commercial Premises
Vehicles may be stored at all sorts of business/commercial premises, but vehicle dealerships, garages and depots, etc, are particularly attractive to thieves; partly due to their concentration of vehicles (often of a known type/value), but also because of the additional opportunities they may present for readily acquiring vehicle keys. Five areas of risk should be considered.

1. Employees
Employees may lose keys through lack of care or, in collusion with thieves be ‘persuaded’ to pass keys or spares to them.

To reduce this risk businesses/owners should:

  •   Ensure records are kept of all keys
  •   Ensure key issue/return is signed for, or a key cabinet tracking system is used.

2. Theft during Business Hours
Sneak thieves often target premises during business hours, aiming to steal identifiable keys from unattended areas or vehicles.

To reduce this risk businesses/owners should:

  •   Create a key code list, and then use numbers or simple codes to label keys rather than registration numbers/personal details.
  •   Keep key code lists separately from the vehicle keys to which they relate.
  •   Not store keys in areas that may be unattended during the working day.
  •   Store keys in a locked key security cabinet (Note. Cabinets with slam door locks make locking easier/more reliable, after every use).
  •   Ensure employees do not leave keys in unattended vehicles at any time.

3. Fraud during Business Hours
Thieves posing as prospective purchasers can be a problem, as a balance has to be struck between maintaining security of keys and discouraging legitimate buyers. A fraudster may either seek an unaccompanied test drive to steal a vehicle, or free access to its keys in order that one can be stolen/substituted - with a view to returning later with it to steal the vehicle.

To reduce risk businesses should:

  •  Not release keys for unaccompanied viewing of vehicles.
  •  Not allow unaccompanied test-drives by unknown persons unless originals of adequate identification, e.g. a driving licence &/or photo ID are produced and temporarily retained. Ideally, temporary custody of their vehicle and its keys should also be sought. (Note. Do not assume that someone who is prepared to leave a vehicle with you will return, it could be a stolen vehicle!)
  •  Ensure that all keys likely to be handled by prospective customers are kept on a tamper proof (sealed) key ring.

4. Theft outside Business Hours
Many premises have some physical security measures in place to prevent vehicle theft, e.g. walls, gates, ram posts, wheel clamps etc, and/or they seek to hinder access by parking low value vehicles across doorways, gates or other entrances.

Many will also back this up with manned guarding, a remotely monitored CCTV or intruder alarm system, as these enable someone to be alerted to attempted theft. However, even with such measures in place key security remains important, as easy access to keys will not only allow thieves to quickly remove a target vehicle, but may also allow them to move others to create exit routes or to ‘ram’ any physical barriers.

To reduce risk businesses/owners should:

  •  Remove all keys from site; or otherwise keep keys in a security safe or a heavy-duty key cabinet fixed to a solid wall. Where fitted, ensure any intruder alarm or CCTV system has coverage of such storage locations.
  •  Remove from site all keys to safes or key cabinets.
  •  Remove key code lists from site or store them securely away from any keys.
  •  Remove from site all keys for security devices, e.g. wheel clamps, gates, ram posts, etc or store them securely, e.g. within a suitable security safe.

5. Vehicles Collected or Returned Outside Business Hours
Vehicles left at premises outside business hours are always vulnerable to theft, and especially so if keys are possibly available to thieves. For example when they are ‘hidden’ under a wheel arch, or posted through a letterbox - where they are then vulnerable to being ‘fished out’, or having adjacent glazing smashed to obtain them.

To reduce risk businesses/owners should:

  • Avoid key collection or return outside normal working hours.
  • Ensure key return is via an external non-return drawer/deposit system into an internal key safe. Such safes should be fitted to or within a solid masonry wall      and, where an alarm or CCTV system is installed, be located within their area of coverage.

Vehicles Parked at Driver’s Homes
Vehicle theft at homes often occurs because keys have been left in unattended vehicles, or kept in locations that are readily located/accessible to thieves.

To reduce risk drivers should:

  •  Always remove keys and lock a vehicle when it is unattended.
  •  Not leave a vehicle unattended and running to ‘warm up/defrost’.
  •  (Note. Security risks aside, unattended running is an illegal act on a public highway)
  •  Not leave keys within sight or reach of windows in the home, as ‘smash and grab’ theft only takes seconds.
  •  Not leave keys in the home where they could be ‘fished out’ through a letterbox, e.g. by using a hook/magnet on a stick.

Replacement and Insurance

 Subject to its availability, insurance is one means by which financial recompense may be provided should any losses occur, so:

  •  Ensure that any insurance cover and related sums insured are adequate.
  •  Ensure any insurer conditions related to vehicle security are observed.

Key Action Steps

  •      Review current vehicle types (likely attraction to thieves), use and storage.
  •      Review current key security measures and ensure they are as robust as possible.
  •      Ensure driver access is suitably controlled, and that those charged with vehicle use/security are aware of relevant security risks.
  •      Ensure drivers are aware of and observing your vehicle security rules and procedures.
  •      Review security promptly after any loss.

Sources of Further Information
Other ‘Hardfacts’ in the Motor Risk Management and Property Protection - Security Series, which are available in our ‘Knowledge Store’ at

Insafe (Key Cabinets/Key Deposit systems). Tel. 0800 252225 or visit

Thatcham (vehicle security device/product testing) visit

Next Steps

  • Source discounted products, available to Aviva insured customers and brokers, via our Specialist Partners - click here to find out more about the savings you could make
  • Call our Risk Helpline on 0345 366 66 66
  • Email us at 
  • View our Tools and Templates

Please Note
This document contains general information and guidance and is not and should not be relied on as specific advice. The document may not cover every risk, exposure or hazard that may arise and Aviva recommend that you obtain specific advice relevant to the circumstances. AVIVA accepts no responsibility or liability towards any person who may rely upon this document.

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