BMW - Open to car theft?

They cost between £17,000 and more than £100,000. Providing owners with the last word in German luxury engineering. But - every day – more and more BMW owners are waking up to find them gone.

Published 12 September 2012:

Steven Singh opened his door and noticed that his car wasn’t there, apart from some shattered glass on the floor. His BMW M6 convertible had been stolen.

After paying so much, he thought he’d taken all the necessary safety precautions and had both the keys in his possession. Exasperated, he told us,“you spend £40,000, £50,000 on a vehicle and someone can come and take your car without a key. It’s just ludicrous”

On the same night Steven's car was taken, he met another BMW owner who’d also been targeted. Since then, more have been writing to Watchdog. Their cars have gone too. And all of them still have their keys.

It begins with the computerisation of cars. Most modern vehicles, like the BMW, now have an on-board computer hidden away under the bonnet. This computer basically controls the engine and makes sure everything is working correctly.

It also controls the car’s electronic key. All BMWs have had them since 2006. The keys communicate with the computer via radio signal and that in turn allows you to start the vehicle.

But crucially, the computer can also programme a new key, should the old one be lost.

Now this used to be a complicated task that took around 40 minutes to complete and required specialist equipment. But someone has managed to simplify the process by cracking BMW’s technology.

A device exists which allows anyone to access the on-board computer and programme a blank key. It's so easy to use and the process takes little more than three minutes.

The device was actually designed and marketed for garages and recovery agents etc, so they could use it over and over again on different vehicles. Unfortunately, the same could also apply to criminals.

Amazingly, the blank keys and the device are both available to buy at a bit of a price on the internet.

But, as it works on many models of BMW – and as it can be used repeatedly - the criminals are happy to pay.

Police in Warwickshire are so concerned they released a press release in April, warning BMW owners to take extra precautions because of the high number of cars being stolen.

It clearly states “The thief uses a device on the vehicle which programmes a blank key”.

And it's the same story in London. There’ve been so many thefts here, that that in August the Metropolitan Police left leaflets under windscreens, warning BMW owners their cars were likely to be targeted

So with the police going out of their way to warn the public of the dangers, you'd expect BMW to be doing the same. Surely they are contacting owners and letting prospective buyers know the risks?

Well, not exactly. We visited BMW dealerships in both the Midlands and London – both theft hotspots and we got totally inconsistent messages.

So we got hold of one of these devices and a blank BMW key ourselves and, surprise, surprise, with the blank key we were able to start the car. A security system so compromised that even our reporter could break it.

How much more proof does BMW need that it is time for them to take action?

Company Response

 

A BMW spokesperson said:

Criminal activity of all kinds is becoming increasingly sophisticated and particularly in this electronic age evolves with incredible speed. For highly complex, valuable and desirable products like cars, this has been a constant battle for manufacturers, legislators, the police and of course the owners of these cars. Organised crime has turned its attention to profits which can be made when stealing premium cars to order and selling them under false identities or, more often, breaking them up for parts and selling them piecemeal.

Certain criminal threats, like the one you have highlighted, simply do not exist when cars are designed and developed. This does not mean the car companies have done anything wrong, neither are they legally obliged to take any action. However, BMW has always taken security extremely seriously and has worked closely with police forces around the country (and the world), with Thatcham and with the industry body, the SMMT (The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders) to understand and mitigate against car crime wherever possible. Therefore, when we were made aware of this new form of attack, we took it very seriously and immediately launched an investigation.

A vital point to acknowledge here is that there is no such thing as the ‘unstealable’ car, as Ron Cliff knows well. If a criminal decides they want your car, they will find a way to take it. Our job is to make it as difficult as possible.

Can BMW confirm it is aware of the issues raised above?

We are aware of this new type of high-tech car crime, which is certainly not restricted to BMW, but is an industry wide issue. Manufacturers and police forces are in a constant battle against the increasing sophistication of organised car criminals.

When did BMW become aware of the security issues outlined above?

We have a close working relationship with the Metropolitan Police and with Thatcham and first became aware of this new type of car crime in autumn 2011. We immediately started an investigation, which was a complex process to establish the exact method of attack and the technical implications.

What is BMW doing to rectify the security problems?

There is no specific BMW security issue here, this is something which affects many brands, however organised criminals have targeted particularly desirable cars, with higher value parts and that is why BMW is amongst the brands affected.

BMW prides itself on its vehicle security systems and all BMWs meet all UK and global security standards. Our engineers and technicians review all aspects of our vehicles constantly, including security systems, and after extensive research we are clear that none of our latest models - new 3 Series, 5 Series, 6 Series and 7 Series - nor any other BMW built after September 2011 can be stolen using the method you have highlighted.

For cars built before this date our investigations, jointly with the police, have identified late model BMW X5 and X6 as cars which have been focused on by organised criminals. We are now taking steps to mitigate against this type of theft for these two models and are contacting customers accordingly. For obvious security reasons we cannot say what these measures are.

Other models, including earlier M cars, as featured in your programme, are also being looked at to see if similar measures might be applied.

What advice can you offer your customers?

We agree with the general advice to customers given by the Police:

  • When using remote locking, ensure the car has actually locked by checking a door.
  • Be careful with your keys and who you give them too keys (e.g. valet parking). There is a risk that they could be cloned.
  • Where ever possible park your car out of sight, in a locked garage or under the cover of CCTV cameras
  • In addition: We recommend servicing your BMW at dealerships capable of providing software updates (e.g. authorised BMW Dealerships) on a regular basis to give the opportunity of further enhancing theft protection.

I am pleased to say that we have now had further information from our technical team which means that we will be able to offer the same mitigating measures mentioned in relation to X5 and X6, to any concerned BMW owners, starting within the next eight weeks. This will mean that the car cannot be taken using the piece of equipment you highlight. Of course this will not render the car unstealable, but it will address this particular form of attack.

Any customer who is concerned about this issue can contact our customer service department on 0800 083 4397 or their dealer, either of which will happy to advise.

This page was updated on 12 September 2012.

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