Car thieves beat remote central locking systems: New anti-theft coding devices could cost up to pounds 200 per vehicle. Susan Watts reports

Car thieves with a talent for electronics have cracked one of the most sophisticated anti-theft devices and forced manufacturers to upgrade their defences.

From next month, many of the leading manufacturers will include a new style of 'coded' central-locking unit in their cars, which they hope will foil thieves who have shown they can easily get round present systems.

The latest device police have uncovered is known as a 'grabber' and is about the size of a Filofax. It records the signal used to lock or unlock a car, then recreates the same signal so someone can play this back to the car and undo the locks.

The devices are simple boxes consisting of little more than an oscilloscope and signal generator - both standard pieces of electronic equipment. They will operate at up to about 200 yards - far enough for someone to use sitting in another car in a car park.

Earlier versions of grabbers did not usually record the signal, but tried out different frequencies in rapid succession until they happened to scan past the one that worked. Manufacturers got round this by altering their locking units so that they required their coded signal to be held for two seconds - this meant it took too long for a potential thief to test out each frequency at random. But this does not deal with the new recording grabbers.

The Metropolitan Police said it first came across the newer devices about six months ago. They are available through mail-order magazines and are said to be on sale in some south London pubs. Police claim they are not in widespread use in Britain, but car manufacturers are sufficiently anxious to change their locking systems.

Conventional remote central locking systems send out either an infra-red or a radio signal consisting of a string of dots and dashes, rather like Morse code. This code is unique to each car, although it will always be at a frequency set within a narrow band approved by the Government. The code is usually the same for locking and for unlocking the car.

The way round the new grabbing devices is for the locking system to change its code every time it is used. This way the potential thief records a code that is already out of action by the time he tries to play it back to the car. This is the basis of the systems going into cars from next month.

Both the unit inside the car and the handheld unit will be pre-programmed to change codes at random - although in step with each other - each time the system is used, flipping through many thousands of possible codes.

One alarm maker, which supplies nine large car companies, will offer the new 'rolling code' locking systems soon and is negotiating a deal with a leading insurance company to offer customers discounts of up to 25 per cent if they have the new system fitted.

The alarm company said clients included Mercedes, Volvo, Ford, Rolls-Royce and Toyota. Its system shuffles through more than 4 billion codes at random, but could add up to pounds 200 to the cost of a car.

Alan Beaumont, who handles marketing liaison for Vauxhall in Europe, said most car manufacturers were moving in this direction: 'If they are not, they are making a big mistake,' he said.

Det Chief Insp Jim Reynolds, of the stolen vehicle squad of the Metropolitan Police, said he was aware of the devices, but that there was no evidence as yet that they were being bought or used. 'We have alerted the car trade and many of them have started doing things to tackle it.' He pointed out the device had a legal use, to help 'repo men' to get into cars they are entitled to repossess.

Remote central locking systems have proved problematic in the past. Those that use infra-red signals are particularly prone to open or lock inadvertently. One source said it was common knowledge in the car industry that television remote control units would unlock some vehicles. This should be more difficult with the latest generation of locking systems.

Only a tiny percentage of the cars have remote central locking systems, but this is expected to rise over the next few years.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most