D+AS MAGAZINE

FEATURES — Remote Theft: Stealing the Key to the New Front Door

© 2006 Door & Access Systems
Publish Date: Winter 2006
Author: Deborah Baron
Page 54-58


Remote Theft:
Stealing the Key to the New Front Door
Garage door dealers can offer solutions to a growing theft problem.
By Deborah Baron, DAS Special Correspondent

If the garage door is the new front door to the American home, the garage door opener remote control is the front-door key.

No one would leave the key to their front door in plain view on the driveway in front of their home. Yet, a homeowner is doing exactly that when he or she leaves the remote clipped to the visor or resting in the cup holder of an unlocked car in the driveway.

Media reports indicate that this problem is growing. And the crafty “remote-control thief” is one person who’s happy to see the trend.

Tom Wadsworth, editor of D&AS, has been monitoring garage door news on the Internet for more than a decade. He says that reports of remote-control thefts are clearly on the rise.

“As more Americans fill their garages with stuff, the family car is increasingly being left out on the driveway. And, often, unlocked,” Wadsworth says. “The garage door is now the main entrance to today’s home, but homeowners haven’t changed their behavior patterns to reflect this shift in our culture.”

Of course, this sets the stage for the remote-control thief.

When Opportunity Knocks … Crime Enters
In January 2006, homeowners in Duncanville, Texas, were the victims of thieves who took GDO remotes from cars parked in driveways and accessed the homes’ garages—and other cars in them. The burglars took cell phones, a Palm Pilot, and small amounts of cash. But some of the frightened homeowners went and spent big bucks installing home security systems, purchasing new remotes, and changing their openers’ frequencies.

In February 2006, a burglar entered a gated community on the north side of San Antonio, Texas, breaking into a half dozen homes. Police reports indicate that one resident’s car was left outside, unlocked. The burglar opened the garage door with the remote control, then took off with a bike and some golf clubs.

In late 2003, the Sacramento Kings’ Bobby Jackson woke up to find his two Mercedes gone from his garage. The thieves apparently broke into his car parked outside, retrieved the garage door remote control, and gained access to the two expensive autos.

In April 2001, a Chicago-area thief stole a garage door remote control and a receipt from an unlocked car in a parking lot. The receipt directed the thief to the home’s address, where he entered the home through the garage door, collecting four laptop computers, jewelry, and $15,000 worth of property.

Even bloggers are reporting these burglaries. In September 2005, a blogger lamented about three bikes stolen from his garage during the night. “My garage door was closed when I went to bed and open when I got up the following morning. I think they stole my opener from my Jeep,” he writes.

Looting a Lasagna
Stephan and Christy Smith of Altamonte Springs, Fla., woke up one morning last December to find that someone had entered their garage by using the GDO remote from Stephan’s unlocked car, even though he had taken care to hide it.

The burglar ignored a cell phone, laptop computer, and about $12 in cash in Stephan’s car. He did not try to enter the house, but found his quarry in the garage freezer: a frozen lasagna. He performed the same strange stunt at several other homes on the street, “bypassing any cars that were locked and only stealing remotes from open cars,” Christy says.

Although the Smiths are laughing about the strange burglary now, at first they were frightened. The Smiths are getting new keychain “mini” remotes and are reprogramming their GDO. “You don’t want to take a chance that anyone will come into your home,” Christy says.

The Police Respond
Police sent a warning bulletin to residents in that area, Christy adds. And other law enforcement departments are doing the same. A quick perusal of about 50 police department Web sites across the country showed that many are advising residents to lock up their remotes and to park inside their garages, not outside, when possible. [See related story below.]

In “The House Key You Give Away” on the NetCops P.S.I. Web site (www.netcopspsi.com), police officers explain the dangers of leaving remotes in plain sight in cars—both locked and unlocked. The site also mentions the “smarter” thieves who troll amusement park parking lots for GDO remotes.

The Web site cautions people to lock up the remote and their vehicle registration in the glove box. “In short, a garage door opener and your vehicle registration are like a key and a map to your house.”

On the Other Hand
Although the burglary reports and police warnings may make these thefts seem like a major threat, some feel that it’s really the potential for the crime that needs to be addressed.

Home insurers, for example, aren’t sure. Brian Maze, public policy specialist at State Farm Insurance, says, “We are not seeing this [remote-control burglary] as a major type of loss … or as a growing problem.” He adds, “Although there are probably some burglaries that result from stolen garage door openers, such claims are insignificant compared to all other theft losses.”

Neither Dan Nixa, marketing manager of the Chamberlain Group, nor Bill Wahler, vice president – sales at Marantec America, feel that GDO remote theft is a widespread problem. But both companies, and others, do offer accessories that could thwart these thieves and increase a homeowner’s sense of security.

An Ounce of Prevention
Mini “keychain” remotes with micro-transmitters, available from many manufacturers, provide one solution. Their compact size allows drivers to carry the GDO remote with them—safely away from the car.

But, offers Wahler, men may not like them because they’re too bulky to carry in their pockets. Mini remotes may be better suited to women who carry them in their purses. But these transmitters do solve the problem of the remote on the visor—where most thieves look first.

Another accessory, the LiftMaster Garage Door Monitor, indicates when the garage door is open. Says Nixa, “The monitor can be placed on the homeowner’s nightstand so they can check the garage door before they retire for the night.”

The Chink in HomeLink
HomeLink by Johnson Controls, an integrated wireless control system incorporated into the visors or dashboards of millions of late-model vehicles, is another idea whose time may have come. HomeLink can be programmed to activate garage doors by duplicating the codes of the original transmitter.

HomeLink works with most of the industry’s openers. Chamberlain’s Nixa says, “The advantage is that HomeLink looks like part of the car interior, so a thief might not know it’s there.”

But the problem is that HomeLink can be activated in many cars whether the ignition is on or not. So, an unlocked car with HomeLink could be the same as an unlocked car with a conventional GDO remote: an easy target.

A Solution at Our Fingertips
New biometric technology may hold a key—rather, a non-key. BioMetrx uses fingerprint-activated technology in their SmartTouch Model GD-A1, the world’s first finger-activated GDO control. It mounts on the garage door frame and replaces traditional keypads and keys.

The SmartTouch unit stores information about a person’s unique characteristics. Using a universal handheld programmer, the homeowner is the only person who can enroll and delete other authorized users.

“The device is designed to work with virtually all residential overhead garage door opener mechanisms,” says Lorraine Yarde, president of SmartTouch Consumer Products. She adds that the relay switch is hardwired directly to the opener mechanism, negating the need for each manufacturer’s proprietary codes. (Note: Hardwiring another product into a GDO may void the warranty of the GDO.)

“We will be launching a wireless product later in the year, which will be secured using our own encryption methods,” she adds. A fingerprint-activated remote control would thus be useless to someone who steals the remote.

We asked State Farm’s Maze if homeowners could lower their insurance premiums by purchasing finger-recognition devices or other GDO safety accessories. “Possibly,” he says, “but we would need to show that homes equipped with them have better loss experience than other homes without them.”

As police departments across the country advise, the best protection against remote-control theft is simply to lock the car doors. You would think folks would get it.

What’s a Dealer to Do?
White knight to the rescue! Door dealers can either dismiss the problem or they can see it as “a legitimate opportunity to contact customers and offer helpful advice as an example of your company’s above-and-beyond customer service,” says Tom Wadsworth.

For example, if you publish a newsletter for your customers, offer the advice from this article—or steer them to a police or safety Web site such as the one mentioned in this story. Dealers could also print an advisory notice about remote-control theft and include it with every installation’s paperwork or as a bill stuffer.

But above all, with every GDO sale, you can remind your customers that the GDO remote is the same as a house key and to protect it that way. And, when selling a GDO, take advantage of the opportunity to sell helpful accessories such as mini remotes and open-door monitors.

If a remote-control thief strikes, your customer may only lose a lasagna. But by serving your customers’ safety and security needs, you might be able to prevent them from losing much, much more.

Sidebar

Police Web Site Warnings

Baltimore County, Md.
· Always treat your garage door opener the same way you treat the key to your front door: keep it out of sight and away from strangers, because a smart thief can use the garage door opener to get into your house.
· Thieves can break into cars all too easily, and if the garage door opener is out in the open, on the front seat or the dash, they can use it to open the garage.

Lawrence, Kan.
· If leaving your vehicle parked for an extended time, secure the remote automatic garage door opener in the trunk. Be wary of valet parking.

Orlando, Fla.
· Do not leave garage door openers in cars parked outside. They may be used for easy access into your home.
· Keep your garage door and any doors leading from the garage to the house closed and locked—whether you are home or not. Electronic garage door openers with automatic locking devices offer good security.

NetCops P.S.I.
· Don’t leave garage door openers clipped on the visor or in plain view, but lock them in a glove box or at least put them under the seat and out of sight. A burglar will rarely break into a car unless he sees something that he wants.
· Lock your car. If you leave your car unlocked, definitely don’t leave a garage door opener and registration in the car. Put the opener and vehicle registration in your purse, pocket, or at least hide the registration. Without that, the burglar won't know what house to go to.
· If you lose a garage door opener, or have one stolen, immediately unplug your opener until you change the code.
· If you leave cars parked outside at night, take the garage openers inside your house with you at night.
The NetCops site also warns of crooks who troll parking lots at theatres, beaches, amusement parks, etc. When they find an unlocked car, they grab the GDO remote control and your vehicle registration, which includes your address. While you’re gone, the thieves drive to your home, open the garage door, pull in, and close the door. Behind your closed door, they load up their vehicle with anything they want, then simply drive away.