We’ve all seen movies from the 90’s where a thief would strip back a couple of wires under the dash of a vehicle and connect them to start the car without a key and drive away. But that technique (called “hot-wiring”) is useless on most vehicles built since the mid to late 90’s because auto manufacturers really ramped up the sophistication of vehicle security (and are continuing to do so). The success of their efforts are reflected in lower vehicle theft rates, which dropped by 62% from 2003 to 2013 in Canada. While vehicles are much more secure than they used to be, the modern vehicle is not an impenetrable fort; another vehicle is stolen in our home and native land every seven seconds, costing insurance companies (and subsequently, everyone who pays for auto insurance) over $600 million dollars a year. To make matters even more complicated, vehicle theft and fraud come into overlap in a number of situations, such as when a policy holder decides to ditch their car after drunk-driving it into a tree and then make a claim that it was stolen. Or perhaps they want to “double dip” by selling their vehicle privately and then calling in a claim that the vehicle has disappeared and they have no idea what happened. Fortunately, forensic experts have kept up to speed with the changing landscape in vehicle security and locksmithing to be able to help insurers decipher which vehicle thefts are legitimate and which are not.
While the hot-wiring technique still works on many older cars, modern cars have more sophisticated security systems that require a lot more effort and planning for thieves to get past. First, the thief has to disable the alarm system that most vehicles are now equipped with, and break into the vehicle. The thief then has to find a way to unlock the steering wheel. Next, the thief has to bypass the engine immobilizer system, an electronic system designed to prevent the engine from running unless it senses the right electronic signal being transmitted from a transponder chip in the physical key. The engine will only start if the vehicle’s immobilizer recognizes the signal from the key’s transponder chip. After figuring out a way to get past the immobilizer, the thief can finally drive the vehicle away.
So how do thieves get past all of these security features? The simplest way is to steal the actual key to the vehicle of interest. And thieves don’t even need to steal and keep a vehicle’s key; as long as they have access to the key long enough, they may be able to create a clone key that can operate the vehicle. Modern car keys are designed to unlock all of the aforementioned security features, hence why it is more important than ever for vehicle owners to protect their keys. With that being said, successfully cloning a modern vehicle key is (usually) not as easy as making a copy of your front door key (depending on the year, make and model of the vehicle). A modern vehicle key is typically made up of the mechanical key itself and an electronic portion (see Figure 1 below). The mechanical part of the key unlocks the vehicle doors and steering wheel lock, and this part of the key can be re-created without the original key if the key code (a series of characters that correspond to shape of the grooves cut into the key) and VIN of the vehicle are known. The electronic portion of a modern key includes a transponder chip that communicates with the immobilizer. If a thief only duplicates the mechanical portion of such a key, without also cloning the electronic portion, their key copy will fit into the ignition but it will not start the engine because it cannot get security clearance from the engine immobilizer system.
Figure 1: The Modern Vehicle Key
Without access to the electronically programmed chip in the owner’s key, it is extremely difficult to steal a vehicle. However, there are several points along the supply chain of new vehicle distribution where a thief could gain access to essential information (such as key codes) that can assist them in cloning keys, as was found to be the case when a Canadian-based $30-million crime ring was busted earlier this year. This network of thieves never had to have access to the owners’ keys to steal hundreds of vehicles because they had an insider working in a shipping yard that received imported vehicles (with the key codes printed on a tag included with each vehicle’s key before it arrived at the dealership), and a connection at Service Ontario who would tip them off whenever a vehicle they had information on was registered, along with the owner’s address. The stolen vehicles were illegally shipped to other countries and sold on the black market or disassembled and sold for parts domestically. Without a ring of corrupt individuals with access to the key codes and VINs of the vehicles, as well as extremely sophisticated equipment and key programming expertise, such an operation would not have been possible.
With many legitimate vehicle thefts taking place, how can an insurer decipher between meritorious and fraudulent claims? Like any crime, vehicle theft leaves behind forensic tracks. An expert can help piece together the sequence of events by looking at the following physical and digital evidence:
- Physical evidence of forced entry, or attempts to physically bypass the vehicle’s doors and steering wheel locks.
- Electronic footprints of the thief’s attempts to hack through the immobilizer.
- Vehicle telemetric data (or telematics) of the last phones, or other devices, connected to the vehicle via Bluetooth, wirelessly or otherwise.
- Vehicle Navigation or Informatics System data, which may include vehicle route data.
- Vehicle EDR or black box data, which may contain and record VIN and Odometer data associated with a crash event or incident, especially on newer vehicles.
- Stored data on the key of when it was last used.
- DNA evidence from the driver on the airbags or otherwise.
A reportedly stolen vehicle may contain a treasure trove of physical and digital evidence that can help answer questions such as: Was the vehicle broken into? How many keys are enrolled to the vehicle? How was the vehicle operated? Was the owner in the vehicle during a collision? Further, the key of a reportedly stolen vehicle can be forensically examined to determine if it even belongs to the missing car. Just keep in mind that vehicle and/or key evidence ought to be preserved as soon as possible to ensure the best chance of expertly interpreting the evidence before it is cleared or destroyed.