New car theft now historically easy

Autovaras. Foto on illustratiivne.


Standing in a supermarket line to pay for daily groceries, a guy just might be standing right behind you busy amplifying the signal of your car key so his buddy can drive your wheels off the parking lot and into the wild unknown. This is what the new generation car thieves are about. For them, the business is increasingly a piece of cake. 

This Tuesday night the next BMW X5 got stolen from near a home in Laagri, Harju County. Over these past few weeks, three pricey cars have been stolen in Southern Estonia with total value exceeding €100,000. The police suspects an international organised grouping – probably, auto thieves from Latvia or Lithuania.

At end of October, car thieves from Lithuania were apprehended by the police. While investigating their tools, their eyes fell upon a gadget they nicknamed a «bowl». This is a device that amplifies the signal of an electronic car key so as to open the doors of a vehicle hundreds of metres off in the parking lot opens its doors and starts the engine. As you read this story, a bowl like this is being studied by experts in Tartu, Estonia. The devices are obtained on the black market or over the web where at one site above €9,000 is asked for the thing.

Another example. An individual goes home and leaves the car keys close to the door, on a shelf or in coat pocket.

«This the crooks know very well. They place the «bowl» i.e. the device seeking the radio signals behind the individual’s front door and the «bowl» finds out the smartkey signal. The smartkey send signals to about a metre and a half,» said Toomas Jervson of Northern police prefecture.

«The tasks are divided so that one guy sits in the parking lot and the other is behind the door with signal amplifier. He opens the car doors, the other presses the button in the vehicle and off they go. This takes one second sharp.»

How do they do it?

Mr Jervson said Latvian colleagues showed him a video of car thieves in a line at a supermarket grocery store.

«The man just stands next to you with «bowl» in pocket. As a rule, the car in parking lot is within 100 to 200 metres. The other guy is in the parking lot. He sits into your car and drives off. The first guy buys a kohuke (a delicious little thing to eat, dearly loved by Estonians and Latvians – edit) and leaves the store,» he described.

«The risk is ever so small. If it works and the doors open and the vehicle has no additional starter restriction, the engine stars a hundred percent. That’s all. No need to worry about having to start the engine,» said the experienced policeman.

As a rule, the so-called shop system is only used by local baddies as after the theft it is important to swiftly take the vehicle someplace to «cool off» i.e. hide it from the eyes of potential witnesses. Stealing it by night from someone’s yard, there’s time enough to drive it across the Estonian border.

Traditionally, the dear car taken from Estonia is taken to Lithuania fast, where its VIN-code and documents are falsified. Thereafter, the car is food for Eastern markets in Belarus, Uzbekistan and elsewhere in Asia.  

«The Lithuanian thieves are part of a criminal grouping – the crooks have purchased tools costing thousands of euros, they have people who acquit documents for the cars, take the cars out of Lithuania or Latvia and sell them,» described Mr Jervson.

The cop said crooks mainly crave expensive SUVs like Porsche Cayenne, Lexus, Range Rover, BMW X5 and X6, as well as Toyota Land Cruiser.

«Not that I have compassion on the Lithuanian car thieves but their life ain’t easy: some guys spend a month here seeking for the prey, sleeping and eating in the car between fuel canisters. They may leave no electronic trace. They cannot afford to get caught on camera,» he said.

The Advice

Mr Jervson says the solution for dear wheels owners is simple: if you have a smartkey, add an extra immobiliser. It may costs hundreds of euros, though.

A cheaper variant is not keeping car keys near the front door. Put them in the bathroom. «Some say wrap the key in tinfoil, but that’s no guarantee. Better yet, have the car in a garage.»


  • Have an immobiliser installed or some other such device to keep the car from starting..
  • Do not keep car keys near front door.
  • Park vehicle in garage.
  • Do not keep parking lot or yard gate remote controls and other keys in your car.

TV tellingly shows «Two Tough Guys in America» incident

In USA, «Big Bro» opens car door in another state

The trend gets highly sophisticated: in places like the USA, navigation devices built into cars allow a service of opening central lock via satellite communication.

In a recent episode of Kanal 2 TV series «Kaks kanget Ameerikas» (Two Tough Guys in America), Teet Margna and Kristjan Jõekalda forgot their keys in a rented Chevy SUV, called the rental company and the doors were opened from thousands of miles via satellite.  

Local experts say the thing is not possible in Estonia as yet. «This purely an infrastructure built by General Motors alone. They have a contract in USA with telecoms to offer a service called OnStar. Essentially, additional communication connection is built into the cars,» said Ameerika Autoteeninduse OÜ chief Rasmus Schneider.

Firstly, said Mr Schneider, the car is connected so it automatically sends rescuers its coordinates. «On the other hand, human help is indeed involved. Next to mirror, the car features an alarm button and as one presses it, one gets contact with someone,» said the specialist.

«Probably, some Big Brother is well able to monitor the cars via that,» conceded Mr Schneider.

He thinks it no miracle for central locking to be opened from thousands of miles. «If a car features a computer smarter than a telephone and if the car’s VIN-code is known and there’s some database to know who is having the car at the moment, then truly some limited commands can be given.»

Meanwhile, Mr Schneider not yet believeth in starting cars from a distance. «For that, certain physical obstructions will need to be passed. Starting the car is the fantasy genre, rather.»

In Estonia, the system cannot be used if for the simple reason of the differing mobile frequencies with USA. «They probably have blockings there to not allow international calls. General Motors will hardly be offering that in Europe, and Cadillac has said it is leaving [Europe] altogether. Europe has so many nations and such a variety of legislation. In the USA, all is very easy. Here it is unthinkable, people travel from nation to nation,» added Mr Schneider.

But might inbuilt navigation systems in cars prove to be a temptation for crooks? «Sure, this is electronics and all things electronic and IT may become a threat,» said Northern police prefecture crimes-against-property department head Toomas Jervson.

When vesicle services will obtain the option to open car doors the crooks will not follow too far behind, thinks the policeman: «It’s just a matter of time.»