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Can A Car Be Stolen Without The Keys?

Most people think their vehicles are safe if they have their car keys in their possession.

It might still be possible to break into it, but surely the car itself can’t be stolen. 

This idea is only partially true.

It’s possible to steal a car without the keys, and it’s much easier to steal older vehicles that don’t have ignition protections and newer vehicles with keyless fobs. Most car thieves can’t hotwire a car like in the movies, but many vehicle owners can be careless, unwittingly opening themselves up to car theft. 

How Do People Steal Cars?

A man in a green jacket and a woman in a denim jacket are looking in different directions while opening someone's car.

When people think of car thieves, the first thing that comes to mind is the typical hot wiring scene from Hollywood movies. 

In most vehicles built after 1990, hot wiring is either impossible or incredibly difficult. 

Push-button ignitions work like computers and won’t start when wires get crossed. Even modern cars with ignition keys mostly have some sort of protection to keep this from happening. 

Hot wiring is extremely rare because the thief must have extensive knowledge of the wiring for the exact vehicle they’re stealing. 

Moreover, very few vehicles will start this way.

Despite not working like in the movies, car thieves can still take your car without stealing your keys off of your person. 

Sometimes it can happen because of a simple mistake. Many people exit their vehicles while leaving them running or leave the keys inside either purposefully or by mistake. 

With keyless fobs, if they are left close enough to the car, it can be started.

For example, if you leave your fob near the front window of your home (and your car is unlocked), the signal might still reach, allowing it to start.

Unfortunately, once the car is started, it can be driven away without the fob. 

Even worse would be leaving or hiding the key fob in the car. The thief may not have it, but if the vehicle is unlocked, it can be stolen.

It’s also entirely possible to hack keyless fobs. 

Devices can be used to capture and copy the signal from a key fob that’s inside the house. The signal can then be transmitted to the car, unlocking and starting it without the actual key.

In many cases, keyless cars are actually easier to steal than traditional ones. Push-to-start is incredibly convenient, but the car’s computer can be tricked into starting, whereas vehicles with normal keys don’t operate that way. 

It can take as little as two minutes to capture and copy the signal to unlock or start your car. Cars with traditional keys are more difficult to steal, and it happens much less often. 

Thieves need specialized knowledge to steal those vehicles if they can’t steal the keys from the owner. These car owners are less likely to be targeted, but while it’s unlikely, it isn’t impossible to steal these cars without the keys. 

How To Prevent Keyless Car Theft

Singling out keyless vehicles is necessary because the push-to-start or push-to-open features are standard on most new models. 

Keyless car theft isn’t new, meaning manufacturers have had a lot of time to work on defenses against theft. 

Some cars, like Jaguar, operate on specific radio wavelengths, making it impossible to trace the signal and open (or start) the vehicle. 

Other car companies have directly programmed safety measures into the fobs to prevent car theft. 

For example, motion sensors inside the fobs only transmit when you’re moving. When they’re left idle for a certain amount of time, they go into a kind of sleep mode. 

While the signal can still be tracked while you’re walking around, it helps prevent theft if the fob is just sitting around somewhere.

Most key fobs can also be put into sleep mode manually by the owner. 

Usually, pressing the lock button twice puts the fob in sleep mode, preventing it from transmitting signals and making it impossible to hack. 

If you don’t have a sleep mode or can’t deactivate the fob, you still have a few options to protect yourself. 

Never leave your key fob near the front of your house or in close proximity to your vehicle. 

Thieves trying to grab the signal from the outside will have a more difficult time the farther you keep your keys from any exterior walls. 

Metal-lined wallets and signal-blocking bags are also available. They’re a good way to keep your keys from transmitting signals when you aren’t using them. 

You can also do the usual things to deter thieves from stealing the car. 

The main things you can do to prevent car theft are: always roll up the windows and make sure the vehicle is locked.

If you can, park your car in the garage and keep the door closed. 

Steering wheel locks, lockable posts in the driveway, and gates are also good options at home. 

When you’re in public, consider using a signal-blocking bag and, if you can, put your fob in sleep mode whenever you are walking around. 

Also, never leave your vehicle running, leave your keys in it, or start your car ahead of time to cool it down or warm it up. 

What Do Car Thieves Look For?

A photo of a man's hands on the window of a car.

The biggest thing any car thief will look for is opportunity. 

Most cases involve visible valuables inside the car or finding a car running without the owner around. 

Even thieves using devices to hack keyless fobs may just sit in large parking lots and wait for whatever signals they can pick up. 

Popular cars are also more at risk – not the luxury vehicles that people dream of owning, but the ‘normal’ cars many people have – because often, vehicles are stolen when they can be torn down and sold for parts. 

It’s rare for a car thief to go out of their way to break into and start a vehicle. They either need to have the signal from a fob or catch someone who left their car running.

They need everything to go as fast as possible to reduce the chances of being caught.  


It’s certainly possible for thieves to steal your car without the keys, and you’re much more likely to be a target of theft if you have a keyless start or keyless entry car. 

Signals from the key fobs can be captured and then used; however, some mechanisms, like motion detectors and sleep mode, are embedded in some fobs. 

Simple steps make it significantly harder to steal your vehicle: don’t leave your keys (or fob) inside, always remember to roll up your windows, and make sure your car is locked.

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