Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Can thieves steal your car with a $5 gadget?

Car companies are constantly working on new security features to stay a step ahead of car thieves.


Vicky Mackie and her friend are both certain she locked the doors of her 2013 Volkswagen Tiguan before going to a friend's apartment.

"She confirmed that she heard me lock my door; we actually heard the alarm beep to confirm that," said the Vancouver woman.

They were only gone for a couple of hours, but when they returned Mackie discovered that her car had been broken into – her phone and sunglasses missing, the papers in the front glove compartment scattered on the floor – in spite of there being no signs of forced entry.

Story continues below advertisement

"It's really frustrating because a lot of times you think you're safe leaving things in your car," she said. "It's like a ghost robbed your car. There's no sign of forced entry or anything."

All indications point to a new device in the growing high-tech arsenal of car thieves, one that mimics a car's keyless entry system, illegally unlocking any door with the push of a button. The gadget can reportedly be purchased online for as little as $5.

In spite of this incident, however, and a similar incident that was caught on camera in Winnipeg, Constable Robert Carver, an intelligence officer for the Winnipeg Police Service, does not believe reports that this device can be purchased online for $5, or claims that it can open any car door that has a keyless entry system. "You can't buy the device, it had to be made," he said. "It's frequency-dependent apparently, which means specific cars. If the device would work on them, it would only work at particular frequencies."

While car theft has declined in Canada – from 92,505 reported incidents in 2010 to 77,939 in 2012, according to Statistics Canada – the technology available to thieves is becoming more sophisticated. So are solutions offered by manufacturers and after-market companies.

"Entry into the vehicle is the first level of vehicle security," said Robert Dexter, a spokesperson for BMW Canada.

He says that BMW's key transponder "communicates with a security control unit in the vehicle to validate and match the key to the vehicle, at which point the electronic door's locks are released."

Dexter said that even if a would-be thief were able to enter the car, the key would need to be present in order to start the vehicle.

Story continues below advertisement

"The transponder in the vehicle key communicates with an immobilizer control unit inside the vehicle," he said. "This unit separately immobilizes the engine starting system and gearshift lock." Dexter said that the key transponder and vehicle software are always "talking to each other," exchanging unique identification codes.

"The software interface relies on 'rolling codes' and a 'challenge/response' protocol to maximize vehicle security," he said. "You can think of it like a VPN system for a laptop, which requires the user to have a 'token' with a continuously changing security code."

All Jaguar and Land Rover vehicles have a similar keyless ignition system with electronically coded smart keys, but some have added security features as well, said Wayne York Kung, product communications manager for Jaguar Land Rover North America.

"Some models feature ultrasonic interior intrusion detection, and motion/inclination sensors," he said. "Ultrasonic interior intrusion works like sonar, by detecting something new in the interior. Motion and inclination work by detecting movement or change of angle, such as jacking the car up."

Kung said that some models are also fitted with laminated side windows, which are more difficult for would-be burglars to break.

But in spite of all the expensive and high-end anti-theft technology available, Dexter said the simplest solution for avoiding break-ins is also the most effective.

Story continues below advertisement

"Whether the risk is that someone has a sophisticated device that can unlock your car or somebody is just prepared to break your window and get in your car, the advice is the same," he said. "Do not leave valuables in your car, and certainly if they are in your car do not leave them in plain sight. A car is simply not a secure place to leave something that is important."

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at

Follow us on Twitter @Globe_Drive.

Add us to your circles.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Report an error

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨