Ever watched a movie or show and a thief used a screwdriver to drive away with a car that wasn’t theirs? In the movies, it looks so easy, but is it actually possible to hotwire a new car? There is a lot of misinformation out there, so I’d like to clear things up in this piece.
Most new cars can’t be hotwired using traditional methods. This is largely due to added immobilizers and the removal of physical key slots. However, there are still a number of ways that a car thief can steal your vehicle, regardless of how new it is. Most modern cars opt for electronic safety systems which are easier to bypass.
I’ll explain what hotwiring is, how it works, the modern safety features of cars, and I’ll talk about 10 theft prevention tips to help you avoid being a victim of car theft.
Disclaimer: I’m Not Telling You to Hotwire Cars
I just want to get this out of the way: I’m not encouraging anyone to hotwire cars. I’m also not giving any information to people who are looking to hotwire cars for criminal purposes. This is strictly an informative piece to help you stay safe out there.
What is Hotwiring?
I should start by explaining what hotwiring is. We’ve all seen it in the movies: someone fiddles around with a screwdriver, pushes some wires together, then the car turns on, and the criminal drives away.
Hotwiring is when someone starts a car without having the keys. Typically it’s a car thief looking to steal a vehicle and sell it somewhere else.
How does someone start a car without keys? It has to do with bypassing the process that a car key does. Hotwiring works around the ignition lock cylinder, which prevents a car from starting until the correct key is detected.
Normally, the thief will remove the panel below the steering wheel and expose the wiring that goes into the ignition lock cylinder. With a little manipulation, they can cross the right wires and start your car without a key.
It’s hard to believe, but the movies are right about what this process looks like. However, there’s one huge caveat: immobilizers.
What’s an Immobilizer?
The immobilizer is one way that auto manufacturers stopped making cars so easy to hotwire. Before them, it was just a matter of crossing wires. After them, everything changed.
This is a device that checks the “fingerprint” of your key. It uses an electronic signal to communicate with the key fob in your hand. Your fob has a built-in identification, and the immobilizer makes sure the car’s engine doesn’t turn on until it recognizes the identification.
This became commonplace in about the mid-90s. A vast majority of 2000 and newer cars have one built-in, making traditional hotwiring a lot harder.
This means that most cars before the mid-90s can be easily hotwired using the traditional method of a screwdriver and playing with the wires.
It’s still possible to hotwire a newer car as long as it doesn’t have an immobilizer. With an immobilizer, it’s not possible to hotwire a car.
Push-to-Start Cars are Impossible to Hotwire
This whole process revolves around having a physical key slot in your car. This is where the ignition lock is, and it gives access to the immobilizer as well. With push-to-start cars, the ability to hotwire completely disappears.
Why? Because there’s nothing to physically grab and override.
If you combine an immobilizer and a push-to-start, it’s entirely impossible to hotwire a car using the method I described a second ago. Still, there’s a modern solution to hotwiring that doesn’t include crossing wires at all.
The Modern-Day “Hotwire”
As I mentioned, there’s a little fingerprint inside of your key fob that your car looks for. The big problem with all the anti-theft devices for modern cars is that they rely on electronics. This is a problem because electronics are easy to spoof and workaround, as opposed to physical components.
It’s widely understood that an electronics-based security system is typically easier to crack than a physical one (in a lot of industries and applications).
Another big difference is how long the hotwiring process takes.
With old-school hotwiring, the thief would need uninterrupted access to your car physically for minutes. With modern hotwiring, it can be done in the blink of an eye right in front of you without you realizing it.
Using a Forgotten Fob
Isn’t it so convenient to use a key fob to start your car in the morning? Some people are forgetful and hate going back inside to get their fob, so they just leave it in the car.
If you do this, you’re just handing your car to a thief. With the fob in the car, the doors will be unlocked, and the car will be ready to be started and driven off. It takes no effort at all for the thief to do this. You should at least make it hard for them!
Still, a surprising amount of car thefts each year are all thanks to owners leaving their keys in the vehicle. The first form of modern-day hotwiring is simply using a forgotten fob.
Spoofing Your Fob
Another way they can steal your car is by spoofing your fob. They can go on Amazon and pick up a key transponder for pretty cheap.
If they’re close enough to you, they can hijack the signal that your key sends when you hit the unlock button and start your car. The criminal’s device remembers your key’s signal, which is essentially the password to starting your car, then the key uses it later.
The car can’t tell the difference between the criminal’s fake key and your real key. The car genuinely thinks it’s you in the driver’s seat although it’s the criminal.
Since they have an operational version of your key, they can unlock, start, and drive away your car at any time. There will be no alarms going off when they do it, and they won’t have to break through a window to get in.
The whole process takes exactly as long as it takes you to get into your car and start it.
Yeah — I told you that electronic safeties are scarily easy to break through.
Car Towing Theft
The final method a modern-day car thief might use is “car towing theft.” This one is a lot harder to prevent.
They’ll simply roll your car on the back of a tow truck and drive away. People who see it happening might not say anything since it seems normal for a car to be towed.
Once the thief has uninterrupted access to your car somewhere else, they can use any number of methods to break into your vehicle and steal everything.
10 Theft Prevention Tips
Now that you realize how easy it is to steal a car in the modern-day, you might be freaking out a little bit. Don’t worry, I’m here to help. I have a few tips to help prevent a car thief from getting away with your vehicle.
1. Don’t Leave Your Keys in the Car
The biggest anti-theft tip I have for you is to never leave your keys in the car. Ever. In fact, I can’t think of a scenario in which you should leave your keys in a car that you’re not also inside of.
If your keys are in your car, a thief just has to come up, open your door, and hit the start button of your car. Just like that, they are the new proud owners of a car that isn’t theirs.
It doesn’t even matter if you hide the keys. Some people try to get fancy and leave their keys in the glovebox, so a thief won’t know they’re inside. I promise you, the thief is going to test to see if your keys are in the car by turning on your vehicle or opening your doors before they go looking for the physical keys.
After all, they don’t even need to touch your keys to get away with your car if the fob is somewhere in your vehicle.
Please, just throw them on a key hook in your home somewhere.
2. Park Near Cameras, Lights, and Other People
Whenever you have to park outside, it’s best to park near three things: cameras, lights, and other people.
Why? These will deter would-be thieves from breaking into your car. The added bonus of cameras is that they can help find the criminal even after they hotwire your vehicle.
I’m not saying that parking in the right spot will make it impossible for a thief, but it makes it a whole lot harder.
3. Keep Your Windows Up
If your windows are even cracked, it becomes a lot easier for someone to break in. With a cracked window, a thief can use their weight to force the window down and let themselves into your car.
If the window is completely down, then it’s even easier.
The best idea is to always keep your windows all the way up when you’re not in the car.
4. Keep Your Spare Key Hidden in Your Home
Another common mistake is that people will put their spare key fob in their car somewhere. It helps a lot if you lose your main set of keys or can’t find them.
The big problem is that spare keys work just like your main keys do. This means that a car thief can use your hidden spare keys to unlock and start your car. If you hide your spare keys in your glove box, it’s the same as putting your regular keys in the glove box.
Keep your spare keys somewhere in your home. Ideally, it would be in a room further away from your garage to ensure the range is beyond what’s needed to unlock the doors. A safe in the bedroom closet is a great place for these keys.
5. Lock Your Dang Doors
It doesn’t matter how safe or rich the area your car is parked in — lock your dang doors. The first thing a car thief will check is to see if your doors are unlocked. If they’re unlocked, they will open your doors, steal everything in your car, then maybe attempt to hotwire it.
In fact, groups of criminals are known to drive to rich and “safe” areas of town to get bigger paydays when they enter cars and steal from them. It’s always a good idea to click the lock button on your keys when you leave your car, even if it’s parked in your garage.
A locked door won’t stop a criminal if they really want to break it, but it makes it more difficult and might dissuade them. Some thieves are just looking for unlocked doors to get quick money.
6. Grab an Anti-Theft Device
A lot of modern cars are equipped with anti-theft devices. This will sound an alarm if the car door is opened without using your keys or a break-in is attempted.
If your car doesn’t come with one of these devices, you can buy an aftermarket version and install it. Some of the more elaborate setups will require you to go to a mechanic to install them.
7. Old Car Owners: Install an Aftermarket Immobilizer
Another item you can consider adding to your car is an aftermarket immobilizer. This is for anyone whose car is older and doesn’t have one built-in.
As a reminder, the immobilizer is an additional safety check that’s done before starting your car. With an immobilizer, it’s almost impossible to hotwire a car in the traditional method. It will look for your key fob’s fingerprint before even starting your car’s engine.
These can get pricy to install, but they’re definitely worth it, especially in areas where car theft is high.
8. Get a GPS Tracker
Some drivers like the extra peace of mind of knowing where their vehicle is at all times. For them, a GPS tracker is perfect.
There are a number of different trackers on the market, but they all work the same way: they use GPS signaling to locate your car. There is a small receiver put somewhere on your vehicle, and an app or site online will show you where the tracker is. As a result, you’ll know where your car is.
This isn’t an anti-theft device since it won’t stop a theft from happening, but it will help you locate and retrieve your car after it’s stolen. However, you should never try to get the car back on your own.
You should use the GPS tracker to help the police know where your car is so they can go get it. You never know how angry and evil a car thief is, and it’s not worth risking your life and trying to get the car alone.
9. Never Leave Valuables in Your Car
My parents would always say “if a thief can see it, they can steal it”. A good rule of thumb is to keep valuables out of your car entirely. If it’s not possible, then you’ll have to hide them in your locked glove box.
If you leave valuables on your seats, then you’re begging someone to steal the valuables and then your car. Even with tinted windows, people will be able to see inside and check out what your car has to offer.
The best option? Leave all your valuables inside your house. With your car, a good rule of thumb is to only leave things that you wouldn’t mind getting stolen — especially if you park streetside overnight.
10. Always Park in a Garage (When Possible)
If you have a garage that you’re just using for storage, it’s time for some Spring cleaning. The garage is the safest possible place to keep your car.
Make sure you lock your garage every day if it’s a manual garage. If there’s a man door in your garage that leads outside, lock that too.
For some apartment complexes, garage spaces are optional add-ons for extra money each month. You’ll have to decide if that extra is worth the added security (plus it works wonders keeping your car’s paint looking fresh and it keeps the rust away).
There are plenty of ways to keep your car safe when you’re not in it. I covered 10 tips that will help you do so. Though modern cars can’t be traditionally hotwired, there are still ways for a thief to get in and steal your vehicle. If you want to see more answers to your biggest car questions, check out the rest of my blog. Consider getting some car products that will improve your car-owning experience, as well.