Safe as houses: As car thieves up their game, so too do homeowners...
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Car theft is on the up - and advances in keyless entry are being blamed. Richard Burton looked at the steps homeowners are taking to keep the theieves at bay
One of the new-builds I viewed with interest a few years ago was an impressive three-storey, four-bed in Chiswell Green.
It had a lot going for it. From the massive “entertaining space” of a kitchen, the bespoke cinema room on the top floor and the fact that my neighbours would include a premiership footballer and a radio DJ.
But another aspect was that the cluster of homes it fronted were all behind gates. The house would have been my second purchase that year. The first was a Saab Sport, still new enough to be worth fussing over and all that metalwork gave a serious sense of security.
The car had enjoyed the first few months of its life behind even higher gates of an apartment complex in Docklands, and when it took me to my office in the City, it slept behind sliding gates with flashing lights.
In the end, it was another baby that made me look elsewhere for a house within walking distance of an outstanding school and a mere drive on which to park.
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Priorities restored, I wondered who needs gates anyway as long as you can park off the road and snuggle it up to the house.
I revised that opinion a few weeks ago when it became clear that the house burglars we’d all been worrying about a little more than a year ago, have been replaced by car thieves, seemingly endless numbers of them, often using the latest technology obtained from murkiest parts of the internet to target anything on four wheels.
Thefts from vehicles in St Albans alone have risen by 39 per cent since the beginning of April, with 239 reported, a higher number than Three Rivers, Stevenage and Hertsmere
Social media in Harpenden, a town not exactly known for rusting bangers with coat-hanger ariels, has been hot with reports of cars being tampered with, broken into and people rummaging through their belongings.
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Two incidents close to me involved a family car left with doors and a boot open as dawn broke and around a fiver in loose change missing - and a designer leather sports bag left behind - to a van which suffered damage the owner put at £1,000.
A few nights later another neighbour was disturbed by an alarm going off and the following day police chased a stolen car through Harpenden town centre. But they lost it when they pulled back as it began mounting pavements in a chase captured on the phones of Sir John Lawes and St George’s pupils.
And to think, there was a time when car crime appeared to be on the wane. At its worst – 1992 for example – 600,000 cars were stolen in the UK.
Many police forces made concerted efforts to crack down and car makers did their bit by improving security.
By 2016, the Office for National Statistics were reporting a drop to a mere 56,000. But last year, that figure rose by 56 per cent to 89,000, and advances in keyless entry seemed to take the blame.
While there are still a lot of opportunist attacks; trying door handles, rifling glove compartments and boots for loose change and the odd tool box, those after richer pickings are using sophisticated technology to get around keyless car security systems.
The process is known as relay theft and this is how it works. The thief will buy a form of amplifier and a relay transmitter; not something available in DIY or electrical stores but available online if you know where to go.
They then tour the streets using the kit to identify cars with keyless entry systems and brazenly go on to drives in pairs.
One will stand by the car with the transmitter, while the other walks along the front of the house hoping to bring the amplifier close enough to the key, ideally on a shelf near the door, to detect its signal, “amplify” it and send it on to the transmitter.
This then tricks the car into thinking the real key is nearby and obliges by opening up and allowing itself to be driven away. And they don’t stop when they turn the corner either. Cars operated in this way are designed not to cut out when the key is out of range.
It’s interesting to see in a few local homes I visit frequently; one has installed a drop-down metal post in front of a garage too small to accommodate a five series BMW. It locks into place behind the car when it’s parked nose-up against the garage door.
Another weekend Porsche sits safely behind an SUV but is never without a highly visible yellow steering wheel lock and there’s another I rarely see on a drive in Radlett without its wheel clamp.
Police have been advising drivers to store their keys in Faraday bags, named after their inventor and lined with materials that block wireless signals. Sparing that, you could always try tin foil.
Car manufacturers are on the case and working on new frequency technologies, but in the meantime any home with a lockable gate across the drive has got to be a deterrent, if only to driving a car away.
They don’t have to be expensive. Many firms make them to size and, if you already have robust pillars in place, will supply them with hinges ready to fit. A gap of 10ft, for example, could be gated for around £250 if you’re happy with thin steel buffed up to look like wrought iron.
But a heavy-duty automated sliding jobbie with remote control and video access can set you back anything up to £4,000 if you have all the extras.
And there’s plenty in between, from the robust to the basic-but-ornate aluminium types you’ll find littered along the posh end of Marshal’s Drive.
There’s no doubt gates add a certain kudos – just look at Meadow View opposite the Herts Showground in Redbourn. Or they can just add statements of serious separation like the ones that line much of Kinsbourne Green, Harpenden.
Over in Rickmansworth, I remember asking one owner why he’d bricked up the gap in the high wall at the end of his drive. The answer was apparent when I turned left and left again to double back. I had to approach the house from the rear which was odd - but at least he could give his address as the Loudwater Estate.
Views are divided on entire gated communities. There are enough gin and jag belts enhanced by the exclusivity tag they bring. And in other areas, they merely keep out the unwanted, even though there is little evidence to suggest they deter crime overall.
As for detecting car thefts, how’s this for irony?
Last week, police stopped several people in Harpenden in the early hours of one morning with sat navs and what a Neighbourhood Watch community support officer described as “other items they had taken from cars”.
The only problem was, they had no idea which cars – and had to appeal to drivers to go and check.