3 solutions to electronic car theft, a continuing threat to high-end Toronto automobiles
After a nice dinner in Yorkville mid-April, Danny Goulis and his wife drove back to their North Toronto home and parked their white 2017 Lexus. Unable to sleep around 2 a.m., Goulis walked down to their living room, glancing out the window to see their car still parked outside. An hour later, heading back up to bed, "I look out the window, there's no car," Goulis said.
In an email, Toronto Police said they believe Goulis was the victim of an electronic car theft, specifically, a relay theft.
The Toronto Police Service posted information in December, describing how thieves now use high-tech gadgets to relay fob signals — even from inside your home — to a device outside or override a vehicle's on-board diagnostic system to steal it without ever having access to the keys.
Toronto police said they've seen a 90 per cent jump in the electronic theft of luxury vehicles across the city from Dec. 2017 to 2018, with the numbers remaining consistent today. In 53 division, where Goulis is located, they're up 240 per cent.
Toronto Police said in December that 13 and 53 divisions had the highest number of electronic auto thefts, followed by 32 and 33 divisions. "Without a key, how can you take a car?" he said. "I didn't even know that was possible, but clearly it is."
Det. Sgt. Daniel Sabadics with 53 Division said there are a growing number of criminal organizations with provincial and international "tendrils" who have access to the technology. They ship the luxury vehicles overseas, typically to the African continent for "appreciable amounts," he said.
The electronic theft phenomenon has led some car owners and security experts across the city to find their own ways to protect themselves. Here are some of their solutions.
Thieves tried to steal Vaughan resident Lisa de Vignes's Toyota Highlander in March 2019. "It was very scary," she said. "For nights, we were spooked. Any little noise that you would hear outside, you'd be running to the window."
Toyota owner Lisa de Vignes invested in multiple aftermarket products in order to protect her vehicle. She credits an aftermarket alarm with saving it from a theft attempt. York Regional Police said they've noticed a significant increase in electronic car theft with more than 80 SUVs stolen from residential driveways over the past year using the override method.
Police in both York and Toronto said Toyota and Lexus vehicles are most often targeted in these crimes, but de Vignes said an aftermarket alarm saved hers. She said when the thieves popped off her driver's side handle, disarming the factory alarm and allowing access to her car, a secondary alarm started blaring and the perpetrators ran away.30
To be safe, de Vignes decided to add another aftermarket product. It adds three more layers of security, which can be used alone or in combination. First, there's an extra key fob — with a signal that cannot be intercepted — which will shut the engine down if it's not near the car. Similarly, the car will also shut down if her iPhone isn't close by. Lastly, if the driver can't enter a programmed code into an added keypad, the vehicle won't start.
De Vignes said to her, the security is worth a few hundred dollars. "It's a big ticket item, and for someone to think within weeks of my purchasing this vehicle it's free game … I'm quite upset."
Although police in Durham, Halton and Peel said they have not seen a noticeable amount of electronic theft, owner of DC Unlimited (a car security company in Brampton), David Corak, said he's had clients who suspect they are victims. "No evidence of tow trucks, no evidence of any kind of breaking and entering," he said.
Corak said alarms and ignition-killing devices can be cumbersome, so he recommends a GPS tracker. "It's not necessarily proactive, but it's instantaneous. As soon as the vehicle moves, you can program the tracker to either send you a text message or an email," he said.
Clients can set the device to only send alerts during certain times, like when they're usually sleeping, or for certain distances. Corak said newer GPS devices can be hidden anywhere in the car where they can, hopefully, remain undetected. "Without giving away too many secrets as to where we hide them … let's say you could be sitting on it," he said.
Police said any deterrent will increase the chance thieves won't target your car, such as steering wheel clubs, onboard diagnostic port locks, intelligent radio-frequency identification (RFID) car immobilizers or even parking your car in the garage.
Police suggest adding deterrents to and around your vehicle, such as a steering wheel club, seen here, a device to automatically shut off your engine, or even just by parking in the garage. Michael Bouliane with Toyota, which owns Lexus, said some their vehicles also come equipped with GPS systems, and all models come with a "smart key feature which allows the key fob to be temporarily disabled."
Goulis has now come up with his own low-tech solution. He's storing his keys in an old Christmas tin to block his key fob's signal — essentially creating a makeshift Faraday cage. Upon testing, he said, it works. "A one dollar solution. If I had known, right?"