Car hacking: Cyber vehicle security

Carhacked! How to stop someone from grabbing your car (& belongings)

Last updated on April 13, 2021

Part 1 of our new series on Vehicle Cybersecurity

Jim and Cory had just finished the last day of their shoot for Radio Canada and left their hotel for their gigs. Jim reached in his pocket, took out his fob, automatically pressed it and found – their van had gone. They had packed $30,000 worth of equipment and personal items into its trunk, all of which was now lost, too. When they lodged a complaint with the local police, the patrol told them: “Seems like they stole your wavelength. Oh yes, car hacking happens all the time, where thieves grab your signal when you lock the car, then later just open the door and drive away.”

For Cory this was news. Not so for thousands of victims of this high-tech car theft that has exploded since 2016, according to a recent report by Israeli firm Upstream.auto.

Electronic vehicle hacking is just the latest scam on the block, but to tag it ‘just’ is underwhelming it. For victims, it’s a Houdini trick and for the FBI who worked more than two years to understand how these cars could be hacked in broad daylight in front of pedestrians, it was a mystery.

Months on end, they set cameras around parking lots and public places where cars typically disappeared. What they saw caused them to wonder even more. Masked men circled locked cars tapping the air with devices. Then they opened the car doors, got in and drove away.

For investigators there were two questions:

  1. How could locked car doors be opened by thieves that easily?
  2. How could keyed-ignition vehicles “recognize” keys that are different from the ones used to drive it?

A car hacker tells us how to break in

Sammy, inventor of the world’s fastest virus, is a U.S. government white-hat hacker.  The vehicle hacking steps, he told CBC News, are simple:

  • Thieves buy scanners, jammers and amplifiers that tap into the same unlock code your fob sends to your car.
  • They place a smaller version that interferes with the signal on the vehicle.
  • They circle the car with another device that picks up the car’s signal.
  • Once they figure out the car’s frequencies and program the device, they disable the smaller device, unlock the car’s door, hop in and drive away.

The theft takes at most 30 minutes.

And the cost of the purchase? All it takes is a 30 dollar contraption that you can buy over eBay and that can be used over and over and over again to steal million-dollar Lamborghinis that are eventually sold to countries like Nigeria for smacking prices. (Want to find the location of these stolen cars? Just go to used-car warehouses in California or to certain places in York, north of Toronto, where four to five cars are hidden behind older models in containers ready to be shipped overseas).

Here’s how hackers break in to the ignitions of your cars

The vehicle-hacking app is not the only gadget you find on eBay. You can find the key-programmer to drive it too. (More recently, eBay excluded lockpicking and locksmithing devices, like bump keys, slim jims and code-grabbing devices, from its platform.)

Your car is nothing less than a computer on wheels. Computers are trained to recognize the exact shape, thickness, form of the key that prompts these vehicles to drive. Hackers use programs to retrain those machines to recognize their reprogramming key, which may be any particular key they have in their pockets.

They lock their programmer gadget into the car’s diagnostic port, find the car’s make and model and reset the car’s immobilizer. It’s the immobilizer that deters anyone outside the owner from revving up the engine and driving the car. Once the car recognizes its “new” key, thieves simply step in, inserts their keys in the ignition – and away they go.

A variation is where thieves insert keys in random trunks and steal belongings. That’s what happened to Cory and Jim of Radio Canada where, on a busy downtown Detroit street at 2.00pm two thieves opened the trunk of their van and grabbed $30,000-worth of equipment. Passersby thought they were the van’s owners.

How do you protect yourself?

Until car manufacturers up their tricks, there’s a few cheap and simple tricks you can do to protect your vehicle from electronic car hacking.

Get the following:

  • A lock for your steering wheel
  • A lock for your diagnostic port

Not that thieves don’t know how to work their way around those low-tech blocks, but it will take them time to unfuddle them.

And the cheapest best way to outsmart car thieves?

Instead of using your fob, just lock your cars from the inside before you exit, preventing thieves from grabbing helpful radio-waves.

It’s those cheapest low-tech and everyday habits that protects your car – and its luggage – from the most sophisticated hacker.

Conclusion

There’s a baffling vehicle-disappearance phenomena that’s making its way around the rich neighborhoods in North America – and growing 94 percent year-over-year since 2016. It costs hackers little money to perpetrate this theft and gives them huge yields. Bad guys simply buy or make a smart device that taps on radio waves around the car. They then nicely step in and drive away as though the car belonged to them. Which it very soon does. That’s because few of these hackers are ever caught, passersby think they own the car and by the time police have caught onto their tricks, hackers are onto their upgraded ones.

So how can you outsmart these thieves?  It’s simple: Just lock your cars from the inside before you leave and get some low-tech vehicle locking devices. That’s all there is to it. Time is risk – and risk is something thieves don’t want to encounter.

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