Car thieves take advantage of keyless entry as “freebie” thefts rise

Posted on 3 Nov 2016 by Aiden Burgess

Car thieves are increasingly taking advantage of vehicle owners who leave keyless entry remotes (also known as a key fob) inside their cars, with new statistics showing that such thefts are occurring every six and a half minutes in the US.

The number of these thefts, which are being termed ‘freebie thefts’, has grown by 22% since 2014 to a total of 57,096 thefts in 2015, according to statistics released by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

Over a three year period from 2013 to 2015, the NICB reported a total of 147,434 vehicles that were reported stolen in the US as a result of keys (or a key fob) being left in the vehicle.

The top 5 states where car thieves stole vehicles with the keys inside were California (22,580), Texas (11,003), Florida (9,952), Ohio (8,623) and Nevada (8,073).

Since many people do not actually admit to leaving their car unlocked with the key or key fob inside, the actual number of thefts that occured due to this may be considerably higher.

The NICB is the leading US not-for-profit organisation exclusively dedicated to preventing, detecting and defeating insurance fraud and vehicle theft through data analytics, investigations, training legislative advocacy and public awareness.

The NICB report is seeking to highlight the risks of leaving keys unattended no matter what the circumstance, including warming up the car or running into a shop.

The organisation has advised that owners need to take precautions to prevent these freebie thefts, with NICB President and CEO Joe Wehrle stating that owner complacency was the key factor in such thefts.

“Anti-theft technology has had a tremendous impact on reducing thefts over the past 25 years, but if you don’t lock it up, it’s not going to help,” he said.

“Complacency can lead to a huge financial loss and inconvenience for the vehicle owner. Leaving a vehicle unlocked or with the key or FOB inside gives a thief the opportunity to take not only the car, but also any possessions inside.”

“It can also provide access to your personal information if the registration is left in the glove compartment. We have reports from our law enforcement partners that car thieves have stolen the car, driven it to the residence and burglarised the home before the owner even knew the vehicle was missing.”

The problem of vehicle theft where the keys have happened to be left inside is far from a problem limited to the US, but is also prevalent in other parts of the western world.

According to a September 2015 report featured on, this type of theft is becoming an epidemic in Europe, where high-end luxury SUVs are being stolen and taken to Eastern Europe and the Middle East where they are sold to buyers with forged paperwork so that they can be registered.

Car thieves also exploit system vulnerabilities

However, London Metropolitan Police also reported that of the 24,000 vehicles stolen in London in 2014, 6,000 were stolen without their owners’ keys, the majority of them keyless vehicles. The police figures reveal high-end vehicles including the Range Rover Sport and BMW X3 are being targeted by criminals, who are using high-tech tools to ‘hack’ and steal cars.

A 2015 report released by the London Metropolitan Police suggested that keyless car thefts now accounted for over a quarter of all vehicle thefts in the city.

Making keyless entry systems particularly vulnerable is the fact that manufacturers are forced by European law to make their software upgrades, and the tools needed to access their car’s on-board diagnostic systems, available to the wider automotive industry.

The ruling, known as Block Exemption, which is designed to allow the independent automotive aftermarket to compete with main dealers more effectively.

It’s this issue, says the SMMT, that needs addressing. “The issue is that who the information is available to needs to be tightened, and there needs to be better criteria in place to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands,” said an SMMT spokesman. “Plus we need to make sure the punishments for stealing a car are strong enough.”