No joke: Wrap car fob in foil to deter thieves
Given that the best way to store your car keys at night is by putting them in a coffee can, what’s an ex-FBI agent’s advice to protect cars from theft during the day?
Wrap car fobs in aluminum foil.
“Although it’s not ideal, it is the most inexpensive way,” said Holly Hubert, a cybersecurity expert who retired in 2017 from the FBI in Buffalo, New York. “The cyber threat is so dynamic and ever changing, it’s hard for consumers to keep up.”
Now, as CEO of GlobalSecurityIQ, she suggests clients go online and spend a few dollars and buy what’s called a Faraday bag to shield the fob signal from potential theft. Imagine a traditional sandwich bag made of foil instead of plastic.
Waiting for a signal: Thing is, the car is always waiting for the fob signal. Thieves can buy legitimate devices that amplify the fob signal sitting unprotected in a purse, a pocket, on a counter at home or even just copy the code to access the vehicle.
Copying code from key fobs isn’t difficult. And this is something the auto industry and insurance companies are monitoring closely.
The cheap (or homemade) metal protection covers, named for the scientist who figured out how to block an electromagnetic field, can prevent thieves from having access to vehicles with a wireless fob. Currently, thieves can capture fob signals from outside a home, office or hotel room.
“You know it works if you can’t unlock a car door when the fob is inside,” said Moshe Shlisel, CEO of GuardKnox Cyber Technologies and a veteran of the Israeli Air Force who helped develop cyber protection for fighter jets and missile defense systems. “The credit card holders don’t work because they’re essentially a net rather than a wall.”
He visited Detroit recently to meet with automakers. He’s already working with Daimler on Mercedes-Benz vehicles and the Volkswagen Group on Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen products — to protect them from hackers. Other clients and potential clients have asked to remain confidential.
Shlisel showed the Free Press a new video of his company’s engineers taking control of a semi-truck through the use of a cellphone. Numerous videos have been posted online to illustrate that vulnerability is an industrywide problem.
In a can: He held up his fob and said, “This should be something we don’t need to wrap with foil. It’s 2018. Car companies need to find a way so no one can replicate the messages and the communication between the key and the vehicle.”
At home, Shlisel puts his key fob in a can with foil around it to add another layer. In his pocket, he carries the fob for his 2017 Ford F-150 in a little pouch that is made of fabric on the outside and foil inside.
Cybersecurity experts say privately that anyone who knows anything about the ease of auto and personal data hacking practices safe fob storage.
Clifford Neuman, director of the USC Center for Computer Systems Security in Los Angeles, pointed to the millions of consumers who now carry their credit cards in a protective pocket designed to work as a Faraday cage.
“We’re talking about electronic burglary tools or car theft tools,” he said. “You go up to a house with a car parked in front of it, detect a fob 10 feet away in a bedroom, and it allows the car to be unlocked. As these devices become more available, this scenario becomes more and more likely.”
Neuman added, “Cars used to be hot-wired. That used to be common, but was an accepted risk. This will become a new technique used by criminals. How much you are concerned, and what you do about it, is a matter of risk management.”
Not paranoia: People who store their fobs in Faraday cages aren’t paranoid, experts say.
Jay Beckerman doesn’t want to wrap his key fob in aluminum foil before leaving home, but he says he is learning that maybe it’s a good idea.
After the Free Press wrote an article in May about cybersecurity experts not going to bed before stashing their car “keys” in metal coffee cans to prevent theft, the retired journalist from Phoenixville, Chester County, wrote to say, “I can’t carry my keys in a metal can during the day. What do I do?”
He went on, “I bought a Samsonite RFID pouch from Staples, put my fob wholly in the pouch, stood about 10 feet from my car, a 2004 Audi A6, and pressed the buttons from the outside. But the lock and unlock buttons worked, lights went on and off. Same with a 2013 A4. Not the desired outcome to foil a miscreant snooper. Though they might fit in a purse, Altoid cans probably aren’t deep enough and wouldn’t work in a pants pocket. Band-Aids don’t come in small cans anymore.”
Shlisel said at the time, “The best thing you can do is keep your key in a small tin can wrapped with aluminum foil. But in a purse or pocket, just aluminum foil will do the job.”
Beckerman was one of many readers who called or emailed the Free Press from around the country saying they wanted to learn more.
This is the reality of a wireless, connected world where car doors lock with a click and a chirp, where children in the back seat stream videos and companies can update software technology remotely.
While auto industry engineers know a lot about traditional safety, quality, compliance and reliability challenges, cyber is an “adaptive adversary,” said Faye Francy, executive director of the nonprofit Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which specializes in cybersecurity strategies. “Automakers are starting to implement security features in every stage of design and manufacturing. This includes the key fob.”
Stolen car: Macomb County, Michigan, Executive Mark Hackel is still trying to figure out what happened to the 2016 Ford Explorer parked in his driveway at home. Surveillance cameras recorded a thief approaching his vehicle around 4:20 a.m. on the last Saturday in May. It was parked close to the Macomb Township home with exterior lights shining brightly.
Hackel always locks the car door when he comes home. And he remembers doing so this time, too.
“It would look like daylight on my driveway,” Hackel said. “And there’s a streetlight in front of my house. I play back this video and see a guy creeping up alongside my house. It shocked me because of how well lit it was and the proximity to my house. I couldn’t see anything in his hands but he had something that unlocked the car doors. I watched the interior and exterior lights went on and he opened the door.”
The thief spent time going through the vehicle and ended up stealing a .40-caliber Glock and gift cards. Hackel’s wife’s car was entered, too.
At the time, Sgt. Eric Ehrler told the Free Press that three vehicles were broken into in Hackel’s driveway near 25 Mile and Romeo Plank, along with a vehicle belonging to a neighbor.
Hackel said that some type of new remote opening device was used to unlock the vehicle.
Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said the case is under investigation.