— If you own a car and have never heard of a "relay attack unit," you may want to remember the device, or at least remember the device can illegally open a locked car door and then start the engine, all without the car keys or key fob.
Police agencies and car owners have spent the past few years trying to figure out how thieves simply open a locked car door with a "mystery device" that is often seen in the hands of the criminals.
Now the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) says it may have finally solved the puzzle after testing a "relay attack unit" purchased from an overseas company.
NICB is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to preventing, detecting and defeating insurance fraud and vehicle theft and like law enforcement agencies across the country, NICB has watched how thieves make it look so easy to open a locked car door.
Investigators used a third-party security expert to buy the device, a unit originally created to help manufacturers test vulnerabilities of the locking systems used in vehicles. Specific devices are used to test cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs that use keyless remotes and push-button ignitions.
NICB tested 35 different makes and models of vehicles over a two-week period to determine if the relay attack unit could open a door, start the vehicle and even turn off and restart the engine.
By the end of the two weeks, investigators were able to use the device and open 54 percent of the vehicles and then start and drive off with 51 percent of the vehicles. Of those that were started, 34 percent were shut off and then restarted by using the device.
All of this was accomplished with just one relay attack unit using one type of technology. Investigators say other devices use different technology that may be able to open vehicles this one particular device can't open.
Car manufacturers continually work to improve the security of their vehicles, but as with everything else, hackers will typically find ways around obstacles because that's what hackers do.
NICB says all law enforcement agencies need to be aware of relay attack units and car owners should always be aware of their surroundings when using the remote to unlock or lock their car doors. Suspicious people standing around the vehicle is one clue that your remote's signal is being intercepted, so it won't be a bad idea to skip the remote and instead manually lock the doors if possible.
How a Relay Attack Unit Works