Thieves Steal Same Couple’s Lexus Three Times Using the Keyless Entry Hack

Crooks are finding the advantage in a wireless, keyless future.

byKyle Cheromcha|
Lexus News photo

It used to be simple to steal a car. The modern alarm systems came along, the "screwdriver in the ignition" trick lost its relevance, and it seemed like thieves were content to spend their time collecting old Honda Accords instead of targeting the latest metal. But it appears the boom times are back again with the advent of relay hacks on keyless fob systems, as demonstrated by a crew of thieves in Canada that stole not one, not two, but three Lexus models from the same couple this summer.

CTV News reports Gail Downey and her husband were shocked when they woke up on Monday morning and discovered their two late-model Lexuses had vanished into the night from their Ottawa driveway. The two empty spots were all the more remarkable because one of the cars was a brand new replacement for a third Lexus that had been stolen in the exact same manner in June: with a relay device that tricked the cars into thinking the keyless fob was present.

It's a simple exploit of the unsecured connection between the key fob and the car's brain in a keyless entry system. When you attempt to open a locked door on a car equipped with this increasingly common tech, it sends out a short range signal searching for the fob's presence. One thief stands next to the car with a relay device to capture that signal and beam it to an accomplice holding a second device; the accomplice then scans the front of the house until they manage to hit on the fob and complete the connection. Then it's just a matter of starting it up and driving away.

Forget 60—experienced thieves can have it gone in less than 30 seconds. When the Downeys had their first car stolen back in June, several of their neighbors woke up to empty driveways as well. Police reportedly told them it looked like a professional operation, so the couple was careful to keep their key fobs in protective anti-signal cases every night. Then the thieves came back this week and somehow made off with both of their vehicles, bringing their insured losses to well over $150,000 between the three stolen cars.

Gail Downey told CTV she's not sure she'll get another Lexus now. But if she does, she'll be buying a steering wheel club for it. It's terrible luck for the lightning to strike the same family three times, but the Downeys should take comfort in knowing that they're far from alone. Relay attacks have exploded in the last few years as more cars get keyless entry systems and the cost of the relay technology goes down. A 2016 study by German auto safety group ADAC found that no less than 24 different models could be stolen in this manner, and the stories of thefts since then show that manufacturers still haven't figured out a good solution.

In the meantime, you can always keep your keys in a real Faraday cage. A microwave is also said to work well for this—just don't forget your keys are in there before heating up breakfast.