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The “tap tap” trap and other tactics used by car thieves in South Africa

Car thieves in South Africa have their preferred methods of taking your vehicle, ranging from rudimentary to high-tech.

According to car-tracking company Cartrack, one of the most common tactics for stealing a vehicle in recent years is signal relay attacks.

Modern vehicles have keyless entry and start systems that rely on a wireless signal transmitter that senses when the key fob is near the car and allows the owner to access it, and criminals use signal relay devices to dupe this system and gain entry into a victim’s vehicle.

“How this works is that the device mimics your vehicle’s signal. Once this happens, suspect number two holds a device near the key fob, which sends the signal right back to your vehicle,” said Cartrack.

“This tricks your vehicle into thinking the key fob is close by, giving thieves full access to your vehicle.”

Another advanced method often seen in car theft incidents is key cloning.

Your key emits a signal that either locks, unlocks, or starts the vehicle’s engine. By using special cloning devices, thieves can save these radio signals and subsequently create a copy of your key in just a few seconds, which they can use to open the doors, start it, and drive away.

Less tech-savvy criminals tend to go the old-fashioned route with their thievery and target motorists as they arrive home, with MiWay Insurance estimating that 71% of carjackings in South Africa take place in a victim’s driveway.

“With these hijackings, a target is rarely a spur-of-the-moment choice. Hijackers will study your movements to figure out your schedule and see how long it takes for you to open your gate, park your vehicle, and close the gate,” said Cartrack.

Recently gaining in popularity, brazen thieves may even impersonate police officials with blue lights on top of their cars and the correct uniforms that they got from a contact inside the force.

These “blue light gangs” will pull over unsuspecting motorists under the guise of official police business and steal their cars. In extreme cases, they will even assault and kidnap the victim and take them to ATMs to withdraw cash.

If all else fails, thieves may resort to using the “tap tap” trap.

After deciding that you are their target, the criminals will drive behind you and bump into your vehicle on purpose.

Once you stop and get out to assess the damage and swap insurance info, the hijackers overpower you and steal your car, leaving you stranded next to the road.

“It is also reported that hijackers will use a lady as a decoy driver, which gives their target a false sense of safety,” said Cartrack.

Military-grade car key signal jammers confiscated from suspected car thieves. Source: SAPS

Wave of crime sweeping over South Africa

A wave of crime is currently sweeping over South Africa which has seen car hijacking numbers reach unprecedented levels of as much as 65 incidents a day.

Crime and security analyst Willem Els attributes this lawlessness to a growing lack of fear of prosecution.

At present, less than 30% of criminals in the country are actually arrested, dragged to court, and sentenced, Els told Newzroom Afrika, putting a message into the others’ minds that they can essentially do whatever they want and there is a very small chance they will face consequences.

The staggeringly low prosecution rate stems from the fact that the country’s police (SAPS) force is severely under-resourced and lacks strong leadership.

Els referenced the SAPS’ landmark Operation Shanela initiative that aims to arrest the country’s most wanted criminals for various crimes including murder, rape, and possession of illegal firearms.

Since launching in early 2023 the operation has seen over 600,000 suspects arrested, but a large percentage of them will never see the inside of a courtroom.

Legislation dictates that a case file must be opened for these suspects, they must be charged with a crime, and brought in front of a judge all within 48 hours of being arrested, which is simply not possible due to a lack of manpower and resources in the SAPS.

“South Africa is just overwhelmed at the moment under the burden of this crime wave that is sweeping over the country, and the only way to stop that is if there are consequences,” said Els.

“So what we need to do, the police need to relook their strategies, we need strong leadership at the top, and all those strategies must be filtered and implemented down and backed up by resources.”

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