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Car thieves using $17 power amplifier to hack keyless entry system

Thieves are using a $17 power amplifier in order to exploit a vulnerability found within the keyless entry system of a number of cars.

The device boosts the signal of the owner’s key fob, unlocking the vehicle and is believed to be behind a spate of automobile thefts in the US and Canada.

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Network World reports that Nick Bilton, a writer for the New York Times, discovered the criminal scheme when he became a victim of car theft himself. His 2013 Prius was subjected to three break-ins, all of which did not involve force.

After unsuccessfully asking the Los Angeles Police Department for further information, Bilton noticed that the Toronto police force had issued an alert for a “spike in theft of Toyota and Lexus SUVs" all of which had remote key systems.

"Investigators believe that the suspect(s) may have access to electronic devices which can compromise an SUV's security system," the Toronto police warned. “Using a locked garage is recommended and any spare keys for SUVs should be secured in a safe location."

A security researcher also confirmed to Bilton that some thieves use laptops with a built-in radio transmitter and use brute force attacks to mimic the code assigned to the car’s key fob. These “power amplifiers” can be very inexpensive, explains Boris Danev, founder of 3DB Technologies.

"It's a bit like a loudspeaker, so when you say hello over it, people who are 100 meters away can hear the word, ‘hello,' " Mr. Danev said. "You can buy these devices anywhere for under $100."

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This new form of car theft poses a major security headache for the automobile industry. If you are concerned about your keyless entry system, security researchers advise you to keep your keys in the freezer, as this prevents their signal from being amplified.