By: John Townsend, AAA Mid-Atlantic

WASHINGTON, D. C. (Thursday, December 19, 2019) –– On cold December mornings when teeth chatter and a shiver runs down the spine, some motorists are tempted to let their vehicles “puff” unattended in the driveway. Resist the temptation. Otherwise, your blood will also run cold.

The eponym “puffer crimes” was coined by the police to remind motorists that such capers spike in the winter months because many motorists leave the keyless fobs or keys inside the vehicle, while it is idling or running unattended with plumes of exhaust puffing from the tailpipe. Thieves are bull’s-eyeing keyless fobs. High-tech car bandits are “redirecting the wireless signal from the motorists’ key fobs while the keyless technology fob is still inside the vehicle owners’ home,” police departments warn. It is a post-modern twist on an old crime.

More than half of the cars sold in the United States in 2018 came equipped with a keyless ignition system. Once only available on luxury vehicles back in the early 2000s, keyless ignition systems are popular accessories on all makes and models. They are popular with car thieves. Never underestimate their ingenuity.

“Another way that criminals exploit the key fob is during the process of locking the vehicle,” warns Interpol. “As you lock your car, criminals can intercept and block the ‘lock signal’ sent by the key fob to the vehicle, leaving it unlocked. The criminal can then easily steal the contents inside the vehicle, or the vehicle itself.”

“Many of today’s cars use keyless entry/ignition ‘smart fobs’ that allow the car to be unlocked and started without removing the fob from one’s pocket or purse,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “The vehicle and fob communicate using low-power radio signals that are only effective when the fob is within approximately 36 inches of the car door or ignition start/stop button. Thieves can amplify the signal sent by your key fob to unlock door and break-in your car and rife through your vehicle and steal it too. It is spawning a wave of keyless car thefts known as ‘relay attacks.’”

For all the convenience it provides, the keyless entry is giving motorists three or more things to worry about. For one thing, “modern car thieves are using “technology to wirelessly break into your vehicle,” by “targeting vehicles with keyless entry systems” across the Washington metro area, police departments are warning.

Here’s another thing: high-tech savvy car thieves with bad intentions are hacking and replicating the radio signal from the car’s keyless entry system to separate you from your valuables or your vehicle. As if that weren’t bad enough, auto theft is reportedly on the rise because people are leaving their keyless fobs in their cars and, as a result, in the clutches of wily thieves. As a result, auto thefts hit an eight-year high.

So many chagrined and unsuspecting, and yes even embarrassed motorists are surprised to learn car thieves have developed special equipment to amplify the communication signals – known as a relay hack – between vehicles and “smart fobs,” significantly extending the system’s effective range, explains AAA Automotive.

This can “trick” the car into thinking the fob is next to the car door or trunk when it is somewhere else, allowing the vehicle to be unlocked and started, cautions AAA Automotive. Typically, relay hacks primarily involve property theft from inside vehicles, not the cars themselves. Car theft is possible, but once the car has been driven out of range of the smart fob and shut off, it cannot be restarted.

Even so, auto thefts soared to an eight-year high during 2017, because absent-minded, careless,

distracted, or preoccupied motorists left the fobs in the car, according to news reports. Such car thefts are not only cropping up across the country, copycat crooks who never have a guilty conscience are also pulling off the caper across the globe. “Technological advancements mean criminals can now intercept the signal from the key fob that is used to open modern vehicles and start the ignition,” Interpol is warning. “They can do this from by your home, replicate the signal and steal the vehicle in a matter of minutes.”   

Another caper to guard against is dubbed “the keyless car theft” or “relay theft.” Beware: keyless car theft can take only 20 to 30 seconds, law enforcement agencies warn. That is less than half a minute. Winter arrives on December 21. By the way, leaving a car running unattended while warming it up during wintertime is illegal in many states. On top of that, several states and cities have anti-idling regulations, including Maryland, Virginia, and the District, which warns the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It may lead to a fine.

“In some situations, keyless entry systems on cars can be easily exploited by criminals,” especially those engaged in “puffer crimes.” Always take keys when exiting the car and bring a spare car key on every trip.

In fact, “57,000 cars were stolen in one year with the keys left inside,” reports the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). Now, car kleptomaniacs are targeting cars with key fobs left inside the vehicle. In 2015 alone, “one of out every eight vehicles stolen had the keys or fobs left inside,” the NICB cautions. To thwart thieves, “do not leave your key fob next to your front door or window.”

“If you mistakenly leave the fob in your vehicle, you may end up regretting it. Here is why. It only takes a few seconds to lose your car to a high-tech car thief,” Townsend added. “Here are some simple rules to always abide by. Safeguard your key fob and your vehicle. Be smart, never leave the key fob in the vehicle. Take your key fob with you, whenever you exit the vehicle. Lock your car doors. Roll up your windows and close the sunroof, which can provide a window-like opening for auto thieves.”

AAA recommends drivers take the following precautions to protect themselves from potential vehicle theft as a result of a relay hack:

In 2008, “keyless ignition was standard on 11% of the vehicles sold in the United States,” notes Edmund.Com. “By 2018, it was standard equipment on 62% of vehicles sold.” Don’t expose keyless-entry remote or smart keys to water and always replace the key or fob battery, as the vehicle manufacturer advises.

David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...