Car Thieves Are Hacking Into Headlights—Here’s What You Need to Know

Updated: Aug. 24, 2023

Car thieves are always on the lookout for new methods, and one of their latest involves the headlights. Learn how they do it and what you can do.

In a time of declining honesty and morality, thieving and vandalism are on the rise, and stolen vehicles in particular are being reported more commonly than ever before. According to the Insurance Information Institute, more than 1,000,000 vehicles are estimated to have been stolen in the United States in 2022, compared to only 800,000 in 2019.

Despite modern cars being equipped with more security features than at any other time in history, criminals always seem to be one step ahead. Car thieves are constantly on the lookout for weaknesses to exploit in vehicle security. Without an easy way into vehicles, Hollywood-style hot wiring isn’t really practical anymore, which is why thieves have innovated a way to steal cars through the headlights.

How Are Car Thieves Stealing Cars Through Headlights?

Modern car thieves can steal vehicles by fooling their electronic sensors using a clever homemade device plugged into the headlight wiring harness. The first step is to pull off enough of the car’s front bumper and arch to access the wires powering one of the headlights. Thieves then connect a homemade electronic device to the headlight wiring harness. They use these devices to send fake error code signals to the vehicle’s network, followed by a “valid key” signal that allows them to unlock the doors. From there, skilled thieves can hot wire the vehicle and simply drive away without a single alarm sounding.

The electronic devices made by thieves to fool the car’s security are often assembled from cheap electronic components stuffed into the shell of an innocent-looking Bluetooth speaker. Once the device is plugged into the headlight wires and a slew of fake vehicle error messages are issued, thieves simply press the “play” button on their device to trick the vehicle’s locking mechanism into unlocking the doors.

Is There Anything That Can Be Done to Prevent This?

mechanic repair car lights during a night emergencyAntonio Garcia Recena/Getty Images

The ultimate solution to this new brand of car theft is better vehicle network encryption by automakers. This is still in the works, and won’t be of any help to car owners just yet. One option is to purchase an anti-theft device, but some of these work better than others.

Luckily, there’s one simple measure you can take that will stop thieves dead in their tracks. It’s a bit of a pain to implement, but well worth it if you’re concerned about your car disappearing. Every time I park my car somewhere sketchy, I pop the hood, lock the doors and pocket the keys. I then use a 10-millimeter wrench to disconnect the cable from the negative terminal of my battery. Then I close the hood and walk away. A car thief won’t get far in a vehicle with a disconnected battery. In fact, they’ll get nowhere. A more elegant version of this same idea is to install a hidden kill switch somewhere in your vehicle so you can disconnect the battery from the starter motor with a flick of your finger. Are you familiar with HID headlights?