08/18/2013 06:05 pm ET Updated Oct 18, 2013

The Urban Myth About Car Thieves That's True

A thief casually approaches a car under the cover of darkness on a quiet night. He does not carry a crowbar, and he moves with the confidence of ownership. Without a sound or a single shard of broken glass, the car unlocks in front of the thief. He silently slips inside and drives away without triggering any alarms or damaging the car. This may sound like a criminal urban legend -- the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters filled with over-the-top car chase sequences. According to authorities around the world, however, this disturbing trend in digital crime represents a sobering reality for owners of vehicles with keyless entry systems.

According to UK law enforcement officials, over 1,000 high performance vehicles were stolen in London in 2012 using this same effortless and stealthy method of car theft. Utilizing a small and inexpensive jammer, easily obtained online, thieves block electronic signals sent by key remotes to lock vehicles. Unsuspecting drivers then leave vehicles unattended assuming the doors are locked. With the vehicle completely vulnerable, thieves operate a secondary electronic device inside the car, a key-programming computer, to create a new key to start the vehicle.

In the U.S., thieves appear to target items left inside of cars with keyless entry systems. With concerning reports about goods disappearing from locked vehicles popping up on social network sites and in news reports across the nation, some wireless signal specialists and police agencies suspect that digital savvy criminals have uncovered a method for cracking security codes in order to mimic signals transmitted from keyless entry devices. When drivers press the keyless entry button away from the car to lock doors rather than locking the car using a button located inside the car, a signal transmits from the device to the car. Criminals then intercept and replicate the signal to obtain access to vehicles.

Regardless of the precise method used by car thieves to digitally access cars, the trend makes an increasing number of consumers vulnerable to theft, as manufacturers continue to turn to keyless entry systems for a variety of newer models. Hackers, cybercriminals and shrewd digital experts constantly seek new opportunities to exploit technology to their own ends. In today's digitally connected world, manufacturers and system designers must operate security teams to analyze growing threats and risks in order to protect consumers, and the general public must adopt an increasingly watchful attitude towards developments in digital criminal activity. Staying attentive and informed on growing dangers may keep consumers safely in the driver's seat when it comes to preventing digital crime.

For tips on how to protect electronic devices, computers and personal information from hackers and computer criminals online, please see 60 Days of Hacker Assaults.