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Car Owners Try to Foil Criminals Who May Be Hacking Key Fob Signals

(KPIX 5) – Electronic key fobs that allow you to open your car door and start the ignition are supposed to be a big convenience. Now some car owners are seeking ways to disable the systems, or reduce or block the strength of those signals, to foil criminals who may be trying to hack their way in.

Mary Maxon is one of those car owners. Over the summer, someone broke into her 2013 Toyota RAV 4 not once, but twice, stealing valuables inside.

Both times, there were no broken windows, no signs of forced entry.

"I actually thought for a moment I hadn't locked my car, but I knew that I had," Maxon recalled. "I was perplexed."

Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau said key fob hacking isn't exactly common, but it is increasing. "We've been seeing examples since early 2013," Scafidi told KPIX 5 ConsumerWatch. "Whenever there's a wireless episode or exchange, there's also an opportunity for someone to hijack or overpower that signal," he said.

Scafdi said so far, "we really don't know how," criminals are doing it.

Security experts Max Burkhardt and Aaron Grattafiore said there are plenty of possibilities. Among them, specialized radio equipment that allows crooks to amplify the key fob's signal.

So, instead of only working when it's near the car, the criminals can access the signal from a key fob inside your home, or safely tucked away in a pocket or purse.

"It can make the car and the key think they are next to each other," Burkhardt said.

They also said crooks could be using a jamming device, which prevents the key fob from working at all.

"Those could be purchased for very cheap and could prevent you from locking your car," according to Grattafiore.

And a third possibility: A jamming device combined with a code-grabber, a small gizmo that's made overseas, costs about $100 online, and can clone a key fob code from a short distance away.

Most modern key fobs have a rolling code, cycling through a different one with each click. Experts believe crooks may be hiding near parked cars, jamming the signals, forcing you to click again and again until they record enough signals to do the job. So, a seemingly dead key fob battery could actually be a sign your signal is being hacked.

The Auto Alliance, an industry trade association, wouldn't respond directly to KPIX 5's questions about key fob hacking, but said "protecting vehicle access and security continue to be top priorities for this industry and automakers have been working on multiple fronts to address the security of their products."

Toyota, the maker of Maxon's vehicle, responded with this statement: "We're committed to addressing security challenges that are facing the entire auto industry. While we can't comment specifically on these claims, Toyota recommends that all valuables and other personal items are removed from a vehicle when it is left unattended."

Maxon has come up with a temporary fix. For now, she keeps her key fob in the freezer when she's home or in a special pouch designed to block the signal it sends.

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