Smash-and-grab car thieves use Bluetooth to target cars containing tech gadgets

For a long time it’s been regarded as one of the security industry’s urban myths, but now law enforcement agencies have confirmed that they are investigating whether thieves have been identifying which cars might be carrying high tech gadgets through the use of Bluetooth scanners.

Lily Hay Newman, a staff writer at Wired, reports that a crime prevention specialist at the San Jose Police Department confirmed that thieves are using scanning apps to target vehicles containing laptops, smartphones, and tablets that are emitting Bluetooth signals.

Police have not identified the precise apps being used by criminals, but according to the report they are simple to use and provide more detail than, say, the Android or iOS operating systems give when attempting to pair a device via Bluetooth:”They not only list everything they find, but provide details like what type of device they’re picking up, whether that device is currently paired to another over Bluetooth, and how close the listed devices are within a few meters. The apps are often marketed as tools for finding lost devices, like scanning for your misplaced FitBit at your in-laws’ house. But they’re dead simple to use for any purpose—and they surface many more results than your phone does on its own when looking for something to pair with in your Bluetooth settings.”

Merritt Baer, a principal security architect at Amazon Web Services, brought the issue of how Bluetooth technology is being used by criminals to the public’s attention in October when she described how colleagues of hers had their laptops stolen after their car was broken into in downtown Mountain View.

“We wondered how they knew to break into the hatchback when it is not see-through. They turn on bluetooth scanners and follow the beacon to find electronics,” she tweeted.

Of course it’s impossible to confirm that that is the method that was used by the thief, without the thief being caught or any incriminating evidence being found. It’s possible that a driver who has just parked their car might be being surveilled by a thief who sees them hide their device in a particular place.

But the Wired report says that there has been a recent rise in laptop and smartphone thefts from cars in the San Francisco Bay area, that has resulted in many suspecting that criminals are getting technological help to minimise the amount of time it takes them to find a car worth breaking into, and thus reduce the risk of being spotted.

James Madelin, a Geneva-based marketing and sales consultant, shared his own experience in response to the story shared by Merritt Baer.

Madelin posted on Twitter that he had been puzzled ever since his vehicle was broken into a few months ago, with the thief apparently realising he had hidden an iPad under his car seat, and nothing else having been stolen.

In an ideal world none of us would leave a computing device such as a laptop or smartphone in our cars – but we don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes it’s simply not practical to lug a laptop around with us all day, and so we might hide it out of view in the glove compartment, in the boot, or under a blanket or car seat.

If that’s what you’re going to do, then I suggest you also ensure that the device has its Bluetooth disabled, or – better yet – is completely switched off. Depending on the device’s setup, simply closing the lid and trusting a laptop to remain silent while in “sleep mode” may not be enough.

If you don’t take the simple measure of ensuring that Bluetooth is not informing those in close proximity of a laptop or smartphone’s presence, you might just be announcing to a thief that a valuable gadget is close at hand for them to steal.

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