Car thieves rise to hi-tech challenge

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The Independent Online
CAR THEFT is big business, and not just for thieves. Last year in Britain, one in 40 cars was stolen and one in 25 had something stolen from it. Every minute a car is stolen, every 35 seconds there is a car theft.

Combating the opportunist and the expert car thief is a growth area for reputable manufacturers of hi-tech gadgetry as well as firms out to exploit the motorist.

The frustrations of car- owners were highlighted at the Old Bailey last week when a Cambridgeshire businessman, Roderic Minshull, 48, was cleared of 'common battery' after a security guard at a London hotel suffered an electric shock from Mr Minshull's car.

The businessman had electrified his high-performance Ford Sierra Cosworth with a DIY 'electric shepherd', designed to deliver a pulsing charge round the pounds 17,000 car to deter thieves. Switched on, the electronic device was capable of delivering 8,500 volts.

Few drivers go to such extreme lengths. But with 25 per cent of all crime in Britain car- related and costing an annual pounds 1.3bn - pounds 600m in insurance and pounds 700m in criminal justice costs - car protection is big business.

The Motor Insurance Repair Research Centre (MIRRC) will release its latest approved list of gadgetry tomorrow. Of the 42 approved systems on the list, 34 are electronic alarm immobilisers, which stop the car being driven away unless the driver uses a coded device.

These range from the Ford 951 at pounds 225 to Porsche's immobiliser at pounds 400. The rest of the approved mechanical systems lock everything from the gears to the steering wheel.

Ratings approved by the MIRRC, coupled with Consumer Association tests, have partially defused the minefield of purchasing a car security device that will work.

But despite micro-chip key technology and radio-signal trackers, the problems are not over for the besieged motorist. As gadgets become more advanced, so the thieves' ingenuity increases.

Ian Platt, director of a Liverpool-based recovery firm, said: 'Cars are easy to get into, no doubt. I've seen it: 30 seconds to get past expensive systems. The more electronic technology used, the more complex the micro-chip technology the thief uses.'

Brian Melia, Mr Platt's co- director, said thieves were 'getting cleverer'. Every day his firm recovers stolen vehicles. 'We get to see how each of the new devices is by-passed.' Mr Melia's firm has developed a mechanical immobiliser system which he admits uses old-fashioned technology to lock a car's gear system. The 'Barrier Deadlock', retailing at around pounds 180, was one of the first security devices to meet the requirements of the MIRRC.

Remote control keys, used to de-activate alarms and immobilisers, once threatened to become redundant technology with the development of 'grabbers'. Designed for car- repossession firms, 'grabbers' enabled thieves to pick up the simple codes sent out by remote keys. Anti-grabbing keys were introduced, claimed to have rolling algebraic codes to foil the grabbers. Unfortunately the latest device to be used by thieves is called a 'blocker'. Only a small device, selling for under pounds 100, it sends out a signal that scrambles anti-grabbing keys. Car-owners think they must have dead batteries or another fault, and simply lock the car conventionally. According to one expert in Strathclyde Police, a conventially locked car takes a professional thief 'less than five seconds to get into'.

Michael Smith, chief executive of the MIRRC, which carries out its tests on behalf of 80 insurance companies, said fitting any of the approved devices 'may' entitle policy holders to discounts.

On security, he said motor manufacturers in Britain and Europe had 'done a great deal, even over the last year'. Immobilisers were now factory- fitted on a large number of cars.

The MIRRC has so far approved none of the numerous 'tracking devices' used to locate stolen cars. For Mr Smith 'they are a bit like shutting the door once the horse has bolted'.

The Automobile Association, however, which markets its own 'Tracker' says that since its introduction in September last year, pounds 2.75m worth of vehicles had been recovered, including eight Sierra Cosworths like Mr Minshull's.

Pete Johnson, managing director of AA Commercial Services, said: 'Over half the Tracker-equipped cars stolen were fitted with either an alarm or an immobiliser - some had both. They proved to be little more than a nuisance for the professional thief.'

Mr Minshull said in future he would do things differently. Home Office statistics show one in eight of the performance versions of the Ford Escort, the Ford Sierra and the Vauxhall Astra are stolen. 'As soon as I can,' said Mr Minshull, 'I shall be getting rid of the Cosworth. I will be buying a diesel.'

(Graphic omitted)

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