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What Your Dealership Needs to Know About Modern Vehicle Theft

Vehicle technology has grown leaps and bounds over the past decade. People can make phone calls hands-free, map out trips, effortlessly maneuver into any parking spot, and avoid blind spot collisions — all with the help of their vehicles.

But despite the increasing sophistication of automotive technology — some even say because of it — thieves are still finding ways to help themselves to vehicles. Modern thieves use both low-tech and high-tech methods, including exploiting vehicle technology vulnerabilities, careless driver mistakes, and dealership process deficiencies. Not only do these thefts cost billions of dollars a year, they waste resources as police spend time and taxpayer dollars investigating incidents and tracking down stolen vehicles.

Doing your part to reduce theft means familiarizing yourself with thieves’ tactics, protecting your dealership’s inventory, and educating your customers on how to protect their property.

Common Vehicle Theft Tactics  

Key Theft
Victims: Dealerships, private owners

Whereas thieves used to need to hotwire a vehicle to steal it, today it’s often as simple as using the key. Getting their hands on a key isn’t always difficult, thanks to people leaving keys in unlocked cars and dealerships storing keys in vehicle-mounted lockboxes.

Key Swapping
Victims: Dealerships

In what’s called the key-swap scam, potential vehicle buyers will visit a dealership asking to test drive a vehicle. After the salesperson hands over the keys, the supposed buyer covertly pockets them and returns a counterfeit pair to the salesperson. The thief later returns to steal the vehicle using the stolen key.

Relay Theft
Victims: Dealerships, private owners

Keyless entry technology makes it easy for thieves to steal vehicles via relay theft, using cheap relay devices they can easily purchase online.

In this two-person job, one thief stands near the vehicle holding one relay device, with the other thief holding another relay device near where the key fob is kept. The signal from the vehicle’s locking system is transmitted through the devices to the fob, which then returns a response through the transmitters back to the vehicle, tricking the vehicle into thinking the fob is nearby.

One of the crooks will then simply climb into the car and drive off. The whole process takes less than a minute, as shown in a video captured by police in the UK.

Identity Fraud
Victims: Dealerships

Some criminals will use the identities of people with good credit to finance vehicles with zero down. Telltale signs of a fraudulent purchase include:

  • One or two people being dropped off at the dealership
  • Knowing the exact car they want to buy
  • Being out of state
  • Rushing the deal
  • Using their phone frequently to communicate with someone throughout the transaction 
  • Wanting to drive the vehicle off the lot the same day

Thieves using this scheme often visit multiple dealerships, using a different identity at each one.

VIN Switching
Victims: Dealerships, private owners

Also called vehicle identification number (VIN) cloning, VIN switching scams involve doctoring a vehicle’s original VIN to conceal the fact that it’s stolen.

This is no amateur scam. In Edmonton, Canada, police busted a VIN cloning operation in which thieves would steal vehicles, change the VINs, and register them as active vehicles — all in an average of four days. The thieves weren’t picky about how they acquired the vehicles, using stolen key fobs to lift half of the vehicles from private owners and half from dealerships.

While the list above describes the methods you’ll hear most about in the news, it’s by no means comprehensive. Stay alert for new methods as they crop up.
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Preventing Crime on Your Lot

Once you’re familiar with how thieves operate, be proactive about protecting your business and your inventory by following a few critical guidelines.

Don’t Neglect Basic Security

Deterring theft begins with basic security measures, such as lighting, fencing and gates, surveillance systems, guards, and alarm systems. While these steps alone won’t thwart professional thieves, they’ll make their jobs more difficult.

Secure Your Keys

Since using the keys is one of the easiest ways for thieves to steal a vehicle, store keys in a locked room, preferably away from outside windows and doors to deter relay theft. For added security, keep keys inside an electronic key control system with locking steel drawers and the capability for text alerts and audible alarms in the event of a potential security breach.

Using a system that requires you to attach keys to a tag with a metal ring will also make it harder for thieves to swap the original key for a counterfeit during a test drive.

Heed Warning Signs 

Look out for potential red flags in a sales transaction. If someone is acting nervous or something doesn’t seem right, go with your gut and take the time to double check the buyer’s information. When dealing with used vehicles, always examine the VIN for signs of tampering and verify that the seller’s name and the VIN are consistent across all vehicle documents.

Collaborate With Third Parties 

Seek guidance from third parties such as your security technology partners, local law enforcement, and insurance company. You’ll be able to stay up to date on the latest theft tactics and get tips for protecting your business.

Thieves are smart, but that doesn’t mean you can’t outsmart them. By staying vigilant and taking precautions, you can make your dealership a less attractive target.

Educating Customers 

Educating your customers on how to protect their vehicles builds trust and shows that you’re willing to serve them even after they drive their vehicle off the lot. In addition, letting them know that you’ve implemented safeguards within your own dealership to protect vehicles in sales and service makes them more likely to feel comfortable bringing their vehicle to your service drive.

Sharing your knowledge and expertise about preventing theft could be as simple as handing the customer a flyer with helpful tips along with their paperwork when they purchase a vehicle or sending an email with a link to a video.

Here are some steps vehicle owners can take to protect their property:

  • Park your vehicle inside a garage when possible. 
  • Always lock your vehicle and never leave keys inside.
  • Avoid leaving keys outside your home (e.g., under a doormat) or just inside the entryway.
  • Store key fobs inside a Faraday pouch (a bag designed to block various types of signals, preventing hacking).
  • Use locks on your steering wheel and/or wheels. 
  • Don’t leave personal items or valuables inside the vehicle. If it’s unavoidable, lock the items in the trunk. 
  • Don’t keep documents with private information inside your vehicle. 

Taking this extra step to inform your customers doesn’t require a lot of expense or effort, but it’ll pay dividends in customer loyalty.

Vehicle thefts might be increasing, but that doesn’t mean your dealership or your customers are helpless to stop them. Don’t be a part of the trend.
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