The advanced ways criminals steal cars in South Africa

South African car thieves are using sophisticated hardware and techniques to bypass vehicle security systems and steal cars in minutes.

A recent report from IOL detailed how a criminal syndicate in Durban used diagnostic key readers to steal cars that use transponder or chip keys.

After a spate of car thefts in the last few weeks, the police and the Amanzimtoti Community Crime Prevention Organisation (CPPO) arrested four men they suspected were behind the incidents.

The police also seized a load of car theft tools, which included 15 computer boxes, 35 ignition switches, and a walkie-talkie capable of scanning police radio frequencies.

Diagnostic key readers

Since the 1990s, many cars have used transponder or chip keys linked to their onboard diagnostics computers.

These keys contain a computer chip which is used for authentication. Once plugged into the ignition, the Engine Control Unit (ECU) transmits a code to the key.

A key with the correct code will respond with a message to the ECU that allows the car to start.

To program these keys, a number of diagnostic devices have been developed, which can be used to extract data from the vehicle’s computer box.

Variations of the devices are used by locksmiths to copy keys for customers who need to replace a lost key or remote.

It is worrying to note, however, that these devices can easily be purchased online.

Computer box hot-swapping

A security company based in Gauteng told MyBroadband that car thieves in the province have been caught using similar techniques.

One of these techniques involves using old onboard diagnostic computer boxes.

The thieves pull these boxes from old vehicles in scrap yards or grab them from cars stolen in an earlier incident.

They then use the diagnostic key reader to extract data from the computer box and use this information to recode a stolen or purchased programmable key to link with the particular box.

When the criminals head out to find potential targets, they take the reprogrammed key and linked computer box with them.

Once they break into a car, they quickly switch out the installed computer box with their reprogrammed hardware.

After this is done, the reprogrammed key can be used to start the ignition, lock or unlock doors, and control the alarms.

Ignition switches

If the criminals struggle to replace the computer box, they also often have a set of different ignition switches on hand.

Replacing the car’s ignition switch with their own simply allows them to use a key that already fits into the switch.

Unlicensed walkie-talkies

The security company added that police often find illegally-acquired walkie talkies in the possession of car thieves.

In some instances, the criminals use specific walkie-talkies to listen in on police communication.

Certain versions of these devices are capable of receiving transmissions on radio frequency bands dedicated to emergency services like the police.

Purchasing one of these radios usually requires an amateur radio licence, but the security company noted that these could easily be bought illegally from several shops.

Below are photos of equipment that was seized during the apprehension of the suspected car thieves in the Durban area. Photos are from CCPO.


Toyota Smart Keymaker – Used for several Toyota models


Obdstar Vag Pro – Used primarily for German cars, such as Volkswagen and Audi


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The advanced ways criminals steal cars in South Africa