By Chris Bryant
Somewhere in west London there's a bunker containing around 250 of the world's most desirable cars. Boasting Fort Knox-like security and a police response team stationed close by, the secret Windrush Car Storage facility has been compared to the "Bat Cave."
Following a spate of Ferrari thefts this year, requests to park high-end sports cars and priceless classic models "absolutely exploded," Windrush founder and managing director Tim Earnshaw told me.
"It's an odd feeling because as vehicle enthusiasts we take no satisfaction in car crime being up," he says. The facility also safeguards several Range Rovers after these too were targeted by thieves.
Until recently, automobile theft had declined for decades thanks to technical advances such as car alarms and electronic engine immobilizers, but London isn't alone is suddenly experiencing an epidemic: Vehicle crime is also soaring in the U.S., Canada and Germany.
Reversing this worrying trend will require more policing and owners to take extra precautions. But part of the responsibility lies with manufacturers, whose security features have been too easily circumvented with tools and information found online.
One big reason why car crime has suddenly taken off is vehicles are more valuable.
New and used auto prices soared during the pandemic, and spare parts shortages drove a brisk trade at so-called chop-shops, which break up stolen vehicles for their components.
In the U.S., the perpetrators are often opportunistic juveniles who have learned to steal using information gleaned from TikTok. Around half of those arrested in New York for car theft in the past year were under the age of 18. Kia and Hyundai vehicles have become popular targets because older models weren't fitted with immobilizers and are therefore comparatively easy to snatch. Several cities are now suing the South Korean manufacturers - claims that Kia says are "without merit."
Elsewhere, sophisticated gangs are stealing prestige vehicles to order and then spiriting them across borders. U.K. police are intercepting stolen Ferraris and other luxury autos at ports east of London in shipping containers bound for the Middle East; meanwhile, pilfered Canadian vehicles have been recovered in West Africa.
Though boosted cars are still a small portion of overall insurance claims, the grim development is contributing to soaring premiums; theft-related payouts increased 53% year-over-year in the second quarter to almost £200 million ($248 million), according to the Association of British Insurers.
In some cases, owners of frequently stolen models such as Range Rovers have struggled to find insurance coverage. "Theft of our vehicles in large cities has become a problem," Adrian Mardell, chief executive officer of Tata Motors's Jaguar Land Rover, conceded in June to an audience of investors.
Gangs are taking advantage of weaknesses in car security. Owners of vehicles with so-called keyless access - meaning the doors can be unlocked without the owner handling the fob - are twice as likely to make a theft claim as those without, according to insurer Aviva. Thieves are able to intercept and then relay the keyless signal to another device.
"We seem to have gone backwards in terms of vehicle security for the sake of convenience," says Simon Ambler, head of classic & sports car insurance broker Lockton Performance. "Keyless cars are being stolen in 20 seconds, which makes you wonder about the usefulness of doors that open without a key." The firm has responded by sending its clients a faraday pouch, which can help prevent such thefts by blocking the signal.
Defeating car crime is a game of cat and mouse - one the crooks are too often winning. An emerging threat is so-called CAN injection attacks, which is when criminals hack into the vehicle's electronic architecture via vulnerable points, such as the headlamps.
Hacking gear can be purchased online and is often disguised as something more innocuous - such as a Bluetooth speaker - meaning it may be overlooked in a police search. Though modern cars often come with GPS trackers, crooks are sometimes able to jam the signal.
Owners are resorting to using Apple's AirTags to keep track of their vehicles - in May, New York City said it would donate 500 to residents most at risk of car theft - but thieves are wise to that trick too. Stolen autos may be parked in plain sight for a few days to determine if they are being monitored. And gangs are using AirTags, too, to track sought-after vehicles to a quieter location - such as one's home - where they can be taken more easily.
The good news is manufacturers have realized their sales could be harmed unless they better protect cars. "Protecting Ferrari sports cars from attempts at theft is of the utmost importance," a Ferrari spokesperson said, adding it is working with an unspecified partner "to promptly increase the level of security."
Jaguar Land Rover is offering a software update for older Range Rover models to stop thieves from manipulating the body control module and thereby creating duplicate keys. Its newest Range Rover and Defender models have improved electrical and security architecture, and the keyless entry system uses "ultra wide band" technology to defeat relay attacks. Of the more than 20,000 new Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models on U.K. roads, only five have been stolen, a JLR spokesperson said, indicating the effectiveness of these countermeasures.
Rival manufacturers have modified their keyless systems so that the signal switches off when not in motion or can be shut down by pressing a button. Hyundai is offering customers a free software update to prevent vehicles starting via the method popularized on TikTok. It latest models come with engine immobilizers.
"Yes, there have been instances where the design was not thought about well enough in advance and there's been an uptick in theft," says Richard Billyeald, chief technical officer at automotive risk intelligence firm Thatcham Research. "But we are now seeing a good industry response in terms of new technology to deal with vulnerabilities."
Nevertheless, the crime wave is creating tensions. Customers who install third-party immobilizer devices for extra security are sometimes told by manufacturers this voids the vehicle warranty. Meanwhile, insurers are denying theft claims from luxury car owners who have forgotten to pay the subscription for the tracking device, increasingly a requirement of such policies.
I'm no Tesla fanboy, but Elon Musk's company goes the extra mile on security, and theft rates are low. When a threat is detected in the vicinity of a Tesla, cameras start recording, the headlights pulse and the owner's phone receives an alert. Owners can also set a PIN, which must be entered before the car can be driven - as they do with a mobile phone.
Here's some general advice for the worried: Don't leave keyless fobs near your front door where they are vulnerable to relay attacks, and remember to store them in a faraday pouch or metal tin. Using steering-wheel locks isn't sexy, but it may prompt a thief to pick another target. And when possible, keep your car in a locked garage or install a driveway bollard.
For those who really can't bear the thought of seeing their supercar stolen or dismantled for parts, there's the Windrush bat cave and similar secret facilities - that is, providing you can find them.
Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Europe. Previously, he was a reporter for the Financial Times.