Many motorists with cars stolen by ‘relay theft’ are finding insurers reject their claims and blame it all on them – with some drivers even being accused of fraud.
Relay theft is a way thieves break into cars in seconds, without using blunt force or needing a key, all by exploiting electronic key fobs. Car thefts rose by a quarter last year, in part due to this form of theft.
Relay theft sees criminals simply stand outside a house with a car parked outside, then use a device called a keyless repeater, which works by extending the limited range of a normal keyless fob.
That tricks the car into thinking the fob is closer than it is, letting criminals unlock it remotely and steal the car and any valuables left inside it.
Many keyless repeaters are disguised as key fobs or as reprogrammed mobile phones and Nintendo Game Boys.
Four-step theft: This graphic shows how criminals use relay attacks to steal cars
But many drivers are discovering their insurer has rejected their claim for suspected relay theft, leaving them out of pocket.
Some innocent motorists are even being accused of being part of the theft by their insurer – and of putting in a fraudulent insurance claim into the bargain.
Most insurance policies will not pay out if an insurer suspects fraud, or that a car was stolen using its own key or while left unlocked.
However, the nature of relay theft means cars can be stolen easily with no trace, leaving many motorists unable to prove they are victims of crime to their insurer.
But 10 drivers let down in this way since 2022 have taken their cases to the Financial Ombudsman Service, and won.
In one example last year, a motorist was accused of fraud over a suspected relay theft and had her claim rejected.
The driver, referred to as Miss A, was insured by UK Insurance Limited – the insurance powerhouse that underwrites policies for brands such as Direct Line and Churchill.
The motorist’s car was stolen after breaking down, but UK Insurance questioned Miss A’s account, saying the car’s keys were not close enough for a relay theft and that the car’s alarm would have gone off if it was just lifted onto a lorry, which would have deterred thieves.
The firm then accused Miss A of fraud, leaving her out of pocket and with no car. The FOS said this was ‘difficult and likely costly for her, as she has young children’.
In the end the FOS sided with the driver, saying UK Insurance needed ‘good cause’ to accuse Miss A of fraud, ‘not just some concerns about how or why a thief might choose to steal a car’.
The FOS added that the car could easily have been stolen with relay theft, and ordered UK Insurance to remove all record of the fraud, reinstate the car insurance policy and pay the original claim and £250 in compensation.
A UK Insurance spokesperson said: ‘While the vast majority of claims are genuine, we always remain vigilant in identifying those that are fraudulent, which regrettably do occur and place upward pressure on premiums.
‘In line with the FOS ruling, we have recompensed our customer in this case and apologised for any distress caused.’
A blessing and a curse: Keyless technology means cars can be opened easily by their owner – but the same applies to criminals too
In another example, motorist Ms O’s car was stolen from outside her property.
The driver said her car must have been stolen using relay theft, as there was no broken glass or signs of forced entry afterwards. Her car would also lock itself automatically, meaning it could not be left unlocked for long.
But her insurer, QIC Europe, turned down her claim as she could only provide one of the two keys that came with the car.
The insurer argued that the car must have been left unlocked or else stolen using the missing key.
The second key eventually turned up, but QIC still refused to pay, despite its own investigator saying Ms O’s car was ‘susceptible to theft using the relay method’.
The FOS ordered QIC to pay the claim plus £500 compensation.
In yet another example, motorist Mrs K’s house was burgled. After the police arrived, she barricaded herself inside overnight. She heard noises outside during the night and called the police again – but they arrived the next morning after her car had already been stolen.
But her insurer, Calpe Insurance Company, threw her claim out and said she may have lied about some of the facts.
Calpe said Mrs K’s car key was used on the morning of the theft, making it doubt her story.
The FOS took a dim view of Calpe’s argument, and pointed out that her vehicle was highly vulnerable to relay thefts – or burglars stealing a physical car key. The consumer arbitrator also said that the car key data could be unreliable.
The ombudsman ordered Calpe to pay the claim and £1,200 compensation.
QIC and Calpe have been approached for comment.
Five security tips to protect your car from thieves using high-tech tactics
1. Keep your key fob well away from your vehicle – and store it in a Faraday wallet
To best protect against keyless car theft, always place the keyfob as far away from the vehicle as you can and store it in a location that is not close to doors or windows in your property.
Halfords sells faraday pouches for £5
Even keeping them upstairs or in a room that’s the furthest distance from your driveway will not guarantee that a criminal using relay tactics won’t be able to infiltrate the signal.
For the best level of protection, owners of cars with keyless tech should purchase a Faraday pouch or wallet.
You can buy these online for as little as £5. They isolate the key fob’s signal so it can’t be replicated by thieves.
Metal tins and boxes will also provide similar protective levels, as will keeping your key fob in a fridge freezer, microwave or oven – just remember they are in there before turning on the latter two.
Also, don’t forget about your spare keys and apply the same level of care you would to your main keys or fob.
Keeping your keyless fob in a tin will block the signal and prevent thieves from duplicating it to break into your vehicle
2. Invest in extra anti-theft protection
A simple steering wheel lock or wheel clamp might look ugly but are a great tool to deter even the hardiest criminals with the most tech.
They will act as a visual deterrent for thieves who will likely avoid them.
For a criminal to remove a steering wheel lock typically requires the use of noisy drills or saws to cut through, and therefore they are the ideal first line of defence for owners with models that have keyless car tech.
Drivers should also consider wheel clamps as well as having alarm systems and trackers (read more about these below) installed.
Owners of vans with keyless technology should also consider fitting deadbolts for additional protection, especially if they store expensive tools and items in their commercial vehicles overnight.
3. Be mindful when locking the doors
It may sound simple but always make sure your vehicle is locked every time you leave it – especially in busy car parks where thieves often use signal blockers.
Many drivers also don’t realise that on some vehicle models if you press your key fob only once your car will only be single locked.
This means that if you smashed the window you could manually open the car by reaching in and pulling the handle from the inside.
To double lock, key fobs can require a second press of the locking button to engage the full security features. It is important to read your car’s manual when you first get it and familiarise how to securely lock your car when you’re not in it.
4. Think carefully about where you park overnight
Most often, keyless car thefts take place on owners’ driveways.
While motorists might think having their vehicle in such close proximity to their property guarantees its security, this is certainly not the case when it comes to relay thefts – quite the contrary, in fact, as it means the car is closer to where they keys are inside your home.
That’s why owners with off-street parking should consider additional measures.
Driveway parking posts are a cheap but efficient way of deterring would-be thieves.
Drivers can also go one step further and install lockable gates in their driveway, while simple CCTV systems can provide further peace of mind.
Luxury cars, which are at greater risk of theft, should be parked in a locked garage where possible.
For those without off-street parking who leave their cars on the road outside their home, you are also not safe from these criminals.
Consider parking further away from your property than usual – and try to find a space under a streetlight so that thieves are exposed when trying to steal your car at night.
If you live on a residential street where there are also businesses, park outside one with a CCTV camera installed.
5. Install a tracking device in your car
Installing a tracker system in your vehicle, such as a Thatcham approved device, offers an extra layer of security.
A tracking device won’t stop your vehicle being stolen, but it significantly increases the chances of the police recovering and returning it to you.
They cost from between £250 and £800 and the most secure use military-grade tech to locate the whereabouts of cars.