Car Thieves Turned Hackers Need Less than a Minute to Steal a Nissan

The North Texas police have managed to track down and bust a group of car thieves that specifically targeted new-generation Nissan cars, using relay attacks to unlock the doors and then cloned electronic keys to start the engine.
2020 Nissan Altima 11 photos
Photo: Nissan
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Commander Brian Sudan of the Tarrant Regional Auto Crimes Task Force claims the thieves were very “high-tech,” pointing out that the group stole some 62 Nissan cars worth more than $1.2 million. Some of them have already been recovered, but it’s believed that the number could be much higher.

Once the doors of the cars were unlocked and the thieves were able to start the engine, they just drove away, eventually turning to used car dealers for clean tiles. After changing the vehicle identification numbers, they sold the stolen vehicles to unsuspecting individuals at very small prices.

But while the police told NBC the whole theft is powered by a hack that can take place “in less than three minutes,” the whole thing can be much faster.

This kind of theft is called “relay attack” or “keyless attack” and basically comes down to using dedicated hardware for intercepting the signal sent by the key fob to the vehicle. Very often, the theft involves two individuals, one of which gets as close as possible to the owner’s house in order to capture the signal sent by the original key.

Using special hardware, the signal is then transmitted to a second device that’s operated by the other thief waiting next to the car. Dedicated software is used to send various commands to the car, including a simple unlocking of the doors. The whole thing doesn’t take more than a few seconds, and standard keyless entry systems which aren’t using encryption and rolling entry codes are all exposed to such attacks.

Texas authorities warn that while the thieves have mostly been interested in Nissan car models, including the 2020 Altima, some other brands might eventually be targeted too.
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About the author: Bogdan Popa
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Bogdan keeps an eye on how technology is taking over the car world. His long-term goals are buying an 18-wheeler because he needs more space for his kid’s toys, and convincing Google and Apple that Android Auto and CarPlay deserve at least as much attention as their phones.
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