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Thieves near US bases in Germany stealing keyless cars

A Mercedes Benz SUV with a keyless system at Kleber Kaserne, Germany, on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. Two keyless cars were reported stolen Wednesday night in Hohenecken, German police said in a statement Thursday, a BMW X5 belonging to an American and a Mercedes S500 from a German.

MICHAEL B. KELLER/STARS AND STRIPES

By JENNIFER H. SVAN AND MARCUS KLOECKNER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 21, 2017

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Owners of keyless cars may want to keep their key fobs in a metal box or even the freezer, following a string of recent car thefts near U.S. bases in Germany.

Two keyless cars — a BMW X5 belonging to an American and a Mercedes S500 belonging to a German — were reported stolen Wednesday night in Hohenecken, local police said in a statement Thursday.

On Sept. 12, a BMW X6 was reported stolen from an American in Queidersbach, police said.

The incidents prompted German and U.S. military police in Kaiserslautern to issue an advisory Thursday to all drivers of cars with keyless entry systems to secure their key fobs.

But keeping the fob inside one’s house, especially by the front door, isn’t enough, police warned.

Thieves in Kaiserslautern appear to have used a device that extends the fob’s range, allowing them to break into a locked vehicle and drive away.

Many high-end cars are going keyless for convenience. At close-range, a key fob sends a coded signal to a receiver in the car, which unlocks the door and allows the driver to start the car with the push of a button.

German police assume the car thieves in Kaiserslautern used a “radio wave extender” to amplify the signal from the fob to the car.

The Americans who had their BMWs stolen kept their fob inside the house near the front door, a Kaiserslautern police spokesman said. Their cars were parked in front of their house.

The car key hacking technology isn’t new. ADAC, the Munich-based automobile club, documented the security gap in keyless cars in a report published last year. Club researchers tested more than 20 models from different manufacturers and were able to open all cars with a device that bridged a signal between the car and fob over several hundred meters.

They built the device from commercially available electronic components for $225.

German police are aware of the technology, said Bernhard Christian Erfort, a Kaiserslautern police spokesman, but he said he hasn’t seen so many cars stolen this way in such a short amount of time, until now.

Erfort said drivers with keyless cars should keep their fobs away from entry doors. They should consider using a metal key box that blocks the fob’s radio signal, he said.

Army emergency management officials in Kaiserslautern said such key boxes are now being offered in local stores.

Other solutions suggested by tech experts include sticking your fob in the refrigerator or freezer, or wrapping it in tin foil, both of which are supposed to block the key’s signal.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com
kloeckner.marcus@stripes.com
Twitter: @stripesktown

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