Lynn Walford December 9, 2018

Key fobs are getting more complicated and smarter. But car thieves are getting smarter too. To protect yourself and prevent problems our California correspondent Lynn Walford has a simple guide designed to answer many of your concerns.

How do electronic smart key fobs work?

The smart key emits wireless radio waves. These signals will penetrate through a purse, key case or a pocket. The car has sensors to detect the fob for opening the doors, trunk and starting the vehicle.

What tips should I know about taking care of an intelligent fob?

• Don’t immerse in water or salt water. Most electronic key fobs are water resistant but not totally waterproof.
• Try to avoid extreme temperatures. When colder than 14°F (-10°C) degrees, the battery may malfunction. Avoid keeping the fob in temperatures above. 140°F (60°C).
• Keep away from medical devices – the signal can adversely affect medical devices such as pacemakers, consult with a doctor or the medical equipment manufacturer.

How are key fobs powered?

They are powered by a battery that usually lasts about two years. To replace the battery check your owners manual. As the battery drains it may affect your ability to lock unlock and start your vehicle. We recommend keeping an extra battery in a wallet or purse as a backup.

How do thieves get key fob signals?

Thieves have devices that can copy and or amplify key fob signals. This has been documented by law enforcement and the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) in the U.S.

“Think of your key fob as playing a song. Once thieves know the exact tune, they can play the song and steal your car,” said Moshe Shlisel, Co-Founder and CEO of GuardKnox Cyber Technologies Ltd. a company working on cybersecurity technology and patents to make key systems and cars secure.

He says that thieves perform what is called ‘man in the middle’ attacks. They see the owner using a key fob in a parking lot, copy the signal and once the owner is inside the business or store they play the signal to steal the car. Or they may wait for another day and steal the car then.

Another separate device amplifies the signal while it is in a house or apartment. The cars can’t start with the device, but it provides easy access to steal items in the vehicle.

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Is there any way to shut off a smart key fob?

No. There is no ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch.

How can key fob signal thefts be prevented?

Shlisel suggests wrapping the key fob in aluminium foil and when at home put in a tin. He says that the foil acts as Faraday cage and holds in the signal. He uses foil on his personal key fob for his Ford F-150 in Israel. Another option is Faraday case or bag.

What kind of tin will block key fob signals?

Auto Futures tested several tins and only one was thick enough to block the signal completely. The tins that typically hold sweets were not thick enough. It is a good idea to test any tin by putting the fob in the tin, stand near your vehicle and see if the door performs its functions.

Will aluminium foil stop signals completely?

We tested different types of aluminium foil to find that at first when the foil is new it blocks the signals entirely. Even with heavy-duty foil, more than one layer was needed. Over time, the slightest hole in the aluminium foil allowed the signal to go through. The foil has to be wrapped tightly and cover the entire key fob. We found that crafter’s/florist foil worked the best when rolled a few times and crimped on the ends. If it takes too much time to unwrap the foil, a problem could occur during a dangerous situation.

“It’s hard to wrap foil correctly and you will use a lot of foil over time. We see media suggesting foil because it’s readily available. A Faraday case is more effective and designed to do the job,” says Ryan Judy, CEO of MOS Equipment, the maker of Mission Darkness Faraday line of shielded equipment for law enforcement.

Will a Faraday bag or case prevent key fob radio wave theft?

Yes, if the case and fabric are sealed and it is designed to block radio waves from key fobs. If the Faraday bag is not sealed properly, gets ripped or torn it may not work, warns Judy.

Do RFID purses, wallets or card holders prevent block key fob signals?

According to Shlisel, RFID wallet and passport holder makers use fabric with metal woven into it that may not block the exact signal frequencies of the key fobs. We tested an aluminium RFID credit card wallet and it did not block signals.

What do I do if I lose or break my key fob?

When you lose or damage your key fob there are some aftermarket products that will work that are less expensive that can be programmed by a locksmith or electronic key fob service. Be prepared to spend some money the cost to replace the smart key can be between a few hundred dollars and up to $2000 for luxury vehicles, says Shlisel.

Most likely, with newer vehicles you will have the key have the key fob programmed and vehicle programmed at the dealership, says Miles Johnson Senior Manager, Quality, Service and Technology Public Relations at Hyundai Motor America.

If I keep the key fob in aluminium foil or a Faraday bag do I have to do it all the time?

Yes. ”Thieves look like everyone else, they don’t wear a sign saying ‘I’m a crook,” says Shlisel.

Is blocking the radio waves from a key fob the only way to prevent my car from being stolen?

No. A steering wheel and brake pedal steel bar lockout device are strong deterrents. Attaching the bar to the steering wheel to the brake or clutch pedal makes the vehicle impossible to steer and/or stop. Another way to prevent left is by locking the vehicle in a garage. Car alarms, tracking and aftermarket devices can also stop or prevent theft.

What will replace smart key fobs in the future?

Many experts – including Shlisel – believe that smartphones will be the new way to start replace keys and with a backup card used on the Tesla 3.

Do crooks only need a smart key hacking device to steal valuables from my car?

No. Shlisel and the National Insurance Crime Bureau warn to not store valuables in your car because windows can be easily broken.

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