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Is your vehicle’s security system really secure?

women's hand presses on the remote control car alarm systems

women's hand presses on the remote control car alarm systems

Published May 11, 2016

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This article was first published in the first-quarter 2016 edition of Personal Finance magazine.

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In case you’ve missed the latest statistics, you need to know that criminals are taking a keen interest in the opportunities presented by our vehicles and the valuables we sometimes leave in them, presumably reasoning that they make easier targets than our homes (that is, no guard dogs, electric fences, armed response units, or the like).

How bad is the situation? Pretty bad. According to crime statistics from the South African Police Service (SAPS), there were 12 733 reported carjacking incidents in the 2015 reporting period, up from 11 129 last year (an increase of about 14 percent). The figure for theft of motor vehicles and motorcycles actually dropped slightly, from 56 616 to 55 090, while theft of property from motor vehicles went up from 143 305 to 145 358.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Gauteng has the worst record by far when it comes to vehicle theft: the latest figure is a distinctly scary 27 147, followed by the Western Cape with 8 918 and KwaZulu-Natal with 8 404. Interestingly, the Western Cape closes the gap when it comes to theft of property from vehicles, recording 42 221 incidents against Gauteng’s 44 809. Gauteng leads in carjacking incidents (6 867), followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 2 190 and the Western Cape with 1 530.

It seems Cape Town central is by far the riskiest place in the country to park your car: in a list of the 10 worst precincts, it accounts for a formidable 19.4 percent of the total number of “thefts out of or from” motor vehicles. Sunnyside (Gauteng) is next up, with 10.9 percent, followed by Stellenbosch with 10.2 percent and Bellville with 9.7 percent.

Harry Louw, the managing director of Altech Netstar, a major player in the stolen vehicle tracking and recovery industry for over 21 years, confirms that vehicle crime is showing a significant increase, “and we don’t see it reducing in the near future”. The authorities are hard-pressed to cope, he adds.

Criminals have learnt to play a mean game of catch-up, countering each security industry innovation or update with an electronic device designed to disarm it. Asked about this phenomenon, Louw cites the increased use of GSM (cellular phone) signal jammers during vehicle thefts. Thieves are able to acquire illegal jamming devices ranging in size and power from small hand-held devices to briefcase-sized units, he says. “These emit signals on the GSM frequency that prevent the tracking device in the stolen vehicle from receiving and transmitting messages.” The bad news, Louw says, is that the standard GSM-based recovery systems supplied by tracking companies are ineffective against this new threat.

Solution for car owners

Intent on meeting the challenge, Louw’s company has introduced a solution called Jamming Resist, a feature of its three-tier Safe and Sound product line. Louw explains how it works: “We own a private radio network covering all of the important parts of southern Africa. Within this network, we have a number of private radio frequencies that differ from the GSM frequencies. When our multi-functional device detects signal jamming, it activates a recovery beacon and an emergency message is transmitted to our control centre on the alternative frequencies, at which point we initiate recovery.”

Starting at R139 a month (for a three-year Safe and Sound rental agreement, with no upfront costs), it includes a stolen vehicle recovery service, GPS (global positioning system) pinpoint positioning, auto testing and round-the-clock emergency control room backup, as well as a lifetime product warranty. The top-end Early Warning option (costing R199 a month) adds a keyring activator that allows you to arm and disarm your vehicle, and to flag a trip as business or private for logbook purposes. A recovery warranty of R200 000 (terms and conditions apply, naturally) is included in all cases.

So taking this option would guarantee your vehicle’s security, then? Not so fast. Louw concedes that large “industrial-type jammers” (possibly as large as a suitcase) capable of jamming very large areas could potentially interfere with the Jamming Resist frequencies. But as he points out: “Fortunately, these devices are very expensive and difficult to obtain.”

Altech Netstar responds to about 10 carjackings a week involving suspected jamming devices, Louw says, and many of these have been recovered and extensively tested. “With our in-house expertise in radio networks, radio frequency tracking devices and GSM tracking devices, we consider ourselves well informed.”

But it’s not all bad news. A rival vehicle recovery company claims it is “more than keeping pace with the criminals”. Ron Knott-Craig, the operational services executive at Tracker, says although he cannot speak for the entire industry, his company’s record looks pretty good. “As evidenced by our recovery figures, Tracker and the SAPS currently apprehend one suspect for every five vehicles that are recovered. We currently average more than 90 arrests and approximately 450 vehicle recoveries a month.”

Knott-Craig says Tracker has developed a range of sophisticated telematics-based services for both individuals and the private sector. Its entry-level Retrieve option costs R99 a month (again, for a three-year contract), rises to R179 a month for the Alert (the system notifies a 24-hour call centre when it detects unauthorised movement of your vehicle) and tops out with the SkyTrax at R199 a month. The last product employs GPS technology, allowing you to personally track your vehicle online via your computer, tablet or smartphone, with a claimed accuracy of five metres.

Vehicle tracking devices are no longer a grudge purchase, Knott-Craig says. “For one thing, the cost of the device and service is often set off by a discount in one’s motor insurance premium. Motorists are willing to invest in products and services that can help to keep themselves and their families safe.”

Remote lock jamming

A relatively recent threat to vehicle security (more specifically, the contents of vehicles) has emerged in the form of cheap and easily obtainable remotes that are used by thieves to override the signal from your car-locking remote. If you walk away from your car without seeing the tell-tale flash of lights and without physically checking that its doors are locked, your car becomes fair game for thieves.

Steve Easton, the managing director of Gauteng-based Sanji Security Systems and board member of the non-profit Motor Vehicle Security Association of South Africa, says most automated gate and garage remotes produce a sufficiently powerful signal on the right frequency (433 MHz) to block the signal from your car’s remote locking device. (He’s right: a few days ago, I tested the gate opener from my mother’s apartment block and found that it overrode my own remote with disconcerting ease.)

Easton says: “Common locations include places like petrol stations and shopping malls, but in essence, you could get jammed anywhere. Ironically, these devices can often be bought in the malls where the thieves are operating. They’re opportunists, and they work fast. Evidence suggests that they need no more than a few seconds to open your car door or boot and grab your valuables.”

Last year, police in Midrand arrested a man and confiscated jamming devices with a reported street value of R200 000. He was charged with contravening the Electronic Communications Act.

Interestingly, some motorists actually compromise their cars’ security by disabling the audible lock/unlock warning, apparently because it disturbs their neighbours when they use it late at night. This, Easton says, makes it even more imperative that you check the doors before walking away.

“The thieves have a hit-and-miss strategy. Their jammer could work on a R100 000 entry-level car or a R1 million luxury vehicle. Remember, too, that your insurance company may not pay out if there is no sign of forced entry.”

Sanji offers a remote jamming warning unit called the ZX JamAlert that produces four loud chirps when it detects a remote jammer. Priced from R599 to just under R1 000, depending on the car make and model, it can be fitted to any vehicle.

No doubt, Donald Kau, the head of corporate affairs at insurance company Santam, speaks for all the vehicle insurers when he says his company requires insured property to be kept in a locked vehicle when the vehicle is left unattended. If it is proved that you did not lock the vehicle, the company “will be in a position to reject liability”.

However, Santam’s policy towards lock jamming does leave room for manoeuvre. If you can prove that the locking device was jammed, through CCTV footage or something similarly convincing, Santam will pay the claim. Although the company acknowledges jamming as “force”, it says the onus is on you to prove this.

* Alan Duggan is a freelance journalist and former editor of Popular Mechanics magazine.

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