Car thieves are taking advantage of online messaging platforms such as WhatsApp to plan their crimes, according to security experts.

The rise of encrypted communications services such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram has given criminals new and untraceable means of communicating with each other, helping fuel a jump in targeted thefts in recent years.

Vehicle protection specialists at in-car tech firm AX say that crooks are sharing “shopping lists” of specific makes and models via such apps so they can be stolen to order. As the messages in the apps are encrypted they cannot be intercepted, making them ideal for gangs to plan their crimes in secret.

Once the cars are stolen, they can be given new identities and sold on to unwitting buyers or broken up for parts, which can sometimes be worth more than the car as a working vehicle.

Car thefts have risen by around 45% in the last five years after year’s of decline. Official figures show that in 2017-18, nearly 112,000 cars were taken illegally in England and Wales, up from 75,308 in the 2013-14 financial year.

The Association of British Insurers, which has seen payouts for car thefts reach a seven-year high, says the rise has partly been fuelled by the increasing adoption of keyless entry and start systems on cars which can leave them vulnerable to relay attacks.

These see criminals use receivers and transmitters to intercept the signal from key fobs and trick the car’s locking and immobiliser systems into deactivating, allowing thieves to drive away with the vehicle.

Neil Thomas, AX’s director of investigative services, said “The highly organised criminal networks are constantly looking for more secure ways to carry on their ‘businesses’ online and use social media with encrypted messaging capabilities or even online games to covertly communicate with each other.

“The sheer volume of thefts is practically a car theft epidemic and is enabling criminals to purchase costly technology which then fuels even more car crime.”

“Criminals – or gangs in some cases – use the messaging apps to agree their preferred targets, pricing and buyer before preparing bogus number plates from similar vehicles to rapidly clone vehicles.”

“The thieves who take the initial risk get the cash payment, then the buyer, who now has a tracker-free car can then take their time to strip it, clone it or export it. This is where the profit is, especially in terms of the parts which can amount to much more than the complete vehicle.

“We’ve been highly successful in recovering vehicles for our clients. However, it is usually only possible if they can be traced and this requires specific technology as well as the instinct of experienced professionals.”

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