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A Sky News investigation finds that almost half the 89,000 vehicles broken into in London last year were hacked electronically.

By Thomas Cheshire, Technology Correspondent

Tens of thousands of cars are being stolen or broken into every year by thieves using electronic hacking equipment, a Sky News investigation has found.

Last year half of all car thefts and vehicle break-ins in London alone were carried out without the use of force, according to the Metropolitan Police.

Instead criminals are believed to have used hi-tech devices originally designed for locksmiths to gain access to vehicles.

Commonly, the thieves use easily obtainable equipment that can intercept the signals from key fobs to get into cars or that plug into a car’s on-board computers remotely.

Modern cars contain about 50 low-powered computers which criminals have learnt to take advantage of to steal vehicles in as little as 10 seconds without causing any damage.

Sky News has established that the devices can be bought cheaply online, from websites based mainly in Bulgaria. Video tutorials posted online can teach criminals how to gain access to popular models.

One of the sophisticated car-hacking devices

The problem was first exposed several years ago in certain models. But now police are warning that all modern makes are potentially vulnerable.

And for the first time, the Met has disclosed the growing nature of the threat. About 21,000 cars were stolen in the capital last year, according to the latest figures. A further 68,000 were broken into.

“Recent analysis of crime data suggests that almost half the total number of vehicles stolen in London are taken using this method, which can affect all manufacturers,” the force said in a statement to Sky News.

“High-end vehicles are becoming more and more sophisticated. In turn so are criminals.

“Some organised criminals have access to technology that avoids the need to (physically break in). Vehicles are becoming more technologically advanced and the criminals are becoming more savvy towards that technology and they will develop.”

The Met said it was working with manufacturers to protect drivers from having their cars stolen or broken into.

Car crime has fallen in recent years as manufacturers create even more secure vehicles.

But in countries closer to Bulgaria, like Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, the crime rate has started to rise after years of decrease.

Hacking has led to increases in car crime on the continent

“We have every reason to believe that other European countries will be following suit this year and next,” Mike Parris, head of the secure car division at SBD security, told Sky News.

“It is getting worse,” he added. “The tools are becoming much more readily available. The price of them is falling. And they’re operating much more quickly – you can re-program a key in a matter of seconds.

“All vehicle manufacturers are aware of the problem. It’s fair to say some are doing more than others.

“Car manufacturers are acutely aware of the need to constantly make their vehicles more secure because they know criminals will adapt and develop.”

The Met advises car owners to leave their cars in well-lit areas, to consider using steering, gear shift and pedal locks, as well as tracking devices.

One website found to be selling the devices did not respond to a request to comment from Sky News. Its homepage says: “All devices are sold for official use only!!! If you use them for any illegal purposes, this is your own responsibility!!!”

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