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Ask Arthur: How was my alarm cloned?

A reader asks what can be done if they suspect a remote car alarm has been cloned. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK has a few suggestions.

A reader asks: What can we do if we suspect that the remote alarm for our car and home have been cloned? It’s a 2014 Mercedes C 200. Important items have disappeared from my car and home.

Firstly, you need to be aware of how it may have happened, to prevent a recurrence, and to warn others who may face the same threat.

There are several ways it could have happened.

Radio Frequency (RF) scanning, known as “signal sniffing”: Criminals use a RF scanning device to capture the radio signal emitted by your key fob when you lock or unlock the car, and thus capture the code sent by your key fob. This is more common with older fixed-code fobs, which transmit the same code every time, which is why a 2014 model car may have been vulnerable. Signal Amplification: Key fobs that are automatically detected by a car when it is in close proximity can be targeted by signal amplification devices to extend the range of the signal, so that it opens the car even whole you are inside a house or office, by amplifying the signal from your key fob to unlock your car.

Hacking the car’s systems: Sophisticated thieves might also exploit vulnerabilities in the car’s electronic systems to gain access. In 2022, researchers identified vulnerabilities in the telematics systems of multiple brands, ranging from Ferrari and Honda to Mercedes-Benz and Toyota. Note, however, that the researchers tend to work with manufacturers to identify and address such vulnerabilities before they can be exploited.

What can you do about it?  

Contact the manufacturer or dealer as first priority. In our reader’s case, however, Mercedes was unable to help with the reprogramming. That is the second priority:

Reprogram or replace the key fob: If the dealer couldn’t help you, find a certified automotive locksmith. Try the Locksmith’s Association of South Africa or Google “automotive locksmith”. They should be able to reprogram your existing key fob or provide a new one, at the very least to ensure the cloned signal of the existing fob is no longer valid.

Try additional security measures: Install an aftermarket alarm system or a signal-blocking pouch.

Update Vehicle Software: Ensure that your vehicle’s software is up to date. Manufacturers’ updates sometimes address security vulnerabilities.

Rolling code key fob: It generates a unique code each time you use it, making it more difficult to clone, but some say that criminals can block and “record” that specific code, and “replay” it to get access to the car. That is possible., but requires both sophisticated criminals and specific circumstances, so is highly unlikely.

Use physical security: A good old-fashioned steering wheel lock is a serious deterrent these days, as criminals don’t expect it.

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