With alarms and immobilisers almost standard, and the rise of tracking, car thieves have taken to stealing cars using the owner's keys. Christine Seib investigates the steps the security sector is taking

Car thieves frustrated by sophisticated vehicle security have turned to burglary and mugging to obtain the vehicles they want.

Insurers and vehicle security experts report an alarming increase in the number of vehicles stolen using keys taken from the vehicles' owners.

Stolen vehicle recovery expert Tracker says the number of vehicles stolen with their own keys jumped by 146% in the first six months of 2002.

Royal & SunAlliance motor underwriter Andrew McKellar says the insurer has launched an information programme on car security for its More Th>n policyholders, highlighting the increasing number of such thefts.

"Immobilisers and alarms are standard, tracking is taking off in a big way and entry systems are becoming more sophisticated, so thieves have to steal the keys to get the car," says McKellar.

Tracker insurance liaison manager Dennis Lavers adds that such thefts had the added advantage of causing no damage to the vehicle.

He says Tracker recorded monthly increases in key thefts of between 80% and 300% between January and June 2002, compared to the same period in 2001.

The thefts included incidents of keys being stolen at knife- and gunpoint from the driver.

Motor claim investigation expert Vincent Sherman Associates agrees that many drivers made such thefts easy for car thieves, by hanging their keys on hooks or leaving them on tables beside the front door.

"Thieves cruise areas looking for a particular car which is `on order'," Vincent Sherman Associates marketing director Derek Ross says.

"These high value cars are now so well protected that it's easier to gain entry to the home and steal the keys.

"Our message would be to make life more difficult - take the keys upstairs and put them out of sight."

Anti-theft screening for commercial vehicles
Norwich Union (NU), Thatcham and commercial vehicle manufacturers have reached the first industry agreement to fit standard anti-theft devices before sale.

All of Europe's major vehicle manufacturers have agreed to put their new vehicles through a security assessment by Thatcham from September 2003. The agreement came after a campaign led by NU and Thatcham.

They are also pushing for a full group rating system for commercial vehicle security.

NU motor risk manager Brian Lee says that, to date, many manufacturers have only provided security devices as an optional extra, with little impetus from commercial vehicle owners to protect their vehicle after buying it.

"Currently a commercial vehicle can be opened and the engine started using office stationery - it's that easy," he says.

He says the new agreement is an important first step towards reducing theft.

"We'll have a point of reference for the security of a vehicle, enabling us to underwrite risks more effectively," he says.

From motorbike to Van Eyck
A security system adopted by the motorcycle industry as its standard will be used to cut fine art theft.

Datatag has been used to protect high performance motorcycles since 1992, after the major manufacturers decided to adopt it as the industry's standard identification scheme.

"It was discovered that up to 80% of stolen vehicles were never recovered due to the fact that in many cases they were stripped of their identity and dismantled," Datatag insurance manager Andrew Finlay says.

"With the insurance industry withdrawing cover for high value, high risk machines, something needed to be done."

Datatag comprises two transponders, or microchips, that are put into the seat and the petrol tank.

When police recover a stolen motorbike, they scan it with scanners provided and maintained free by Datatag, revealing a unique 16-digit code that tells the officer who owns the bike and when it was stolen.

The same code is also etched on the windscreen and painted in a secret dot pattern on the engine, in case the police recover the motorcycle in parts.

"Thieves who recognise or suspect property of being Datatagged realise it's too hot to handle," Finlay says.

Datatag, which was bought by Japan's Mitsui & Co at the beginning of the year, is offering a product called Datatag Art-Mark to fine art and antique owners and dealers

Although motorcycle owners can Datatag their own bikes with a £45 DIY kit or request it is done at the point of sale from the manufacturer, Finlay says experts must Datatag fine art and antiques.

Security school
Brokers are dangerously uninformed about vehicle security, GAP Security managing director Guy Anderson warns.

So GAP has launched free training courses for brokers and their employees on vehicle security to remedy the situation.

"Insurance brokers have become resigned to treating vehicle security like many of their policyholders treat insurance - they don't care what it is so long as it's cheap and can be sorted out right now," he says.

"You have a nation of car owners that doesn't understand what Thatcham is about, dealing with an insurance industry that doesn't know either.

"And everyone wonders why we have the highest car crime figures in Europe."

GAP, a fitter of Thatcham approved alarms, immobilisers and tracking systems, will teach brokers how to identify approved alarms and how the alarms work. The security company will also offer brokers a commission deal if they direct clients without suitable security systems to GAP.

To sign up for the course, call Geoff Stephenson on 0800 78 321 65.

Carwatch attacks vehicle verification duopoly
HPI and Experian's stranglehold on the vehicle verification market is being threatened with the launch of Carwatch UK.

Carwatch UK manager Justin Powell says: "We've long believed that, with only two players currently in the marketplace, this has somewhat limited options for companies who need to have vehicle information quickly, efficiently and effectively."

Carwatch was one of only two companies, out of 14 that applied, to be allowed to download the DVLA's 35 million UK vehicle records.

Carwatch's technology provider Data Discoveries built a UNIX system that would allow users to have their vehicle verification checks returned in less than one second.

The system also offers police stolen vehicle data, the Association of British Insurers' Code 44 information on recommended insurance groups and the insurance industry's Motor Insurance Anti-Fraud and Theft Register (MIAFTR).

"It's taken some time to digest and interpret these and analyse how this information can be best utilised for our clients, but now we feel confident and ready to bring competitive products to this sector,' Powell says.