Gone in 60 Seconds: Using High-Tech DNA Coding to Stop Car Theft

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 03, 2015

Wow, you can’t be too careful these days. I got a call yesterday from a professional-sounding voice who told me the good news—I’d been selected for a free security system as part of a promotion that was targeting my neighborhood! All I had to do was put up a lawn sign. “Do you have a security system now?” he asked brightly. That set off alarm bells; it’s just what a crook looking for an unprotected house would ask, and I told him so. Guess what, he hung up.

Can they be called car thieves if they take everything... but the car itself? (David Martin/Flickr)I haven’t had a break-in, but I have had six cars stolen (plus some window smash-and-grabs), and it’s always a really bad feeling. Your car has an approximately one in 270 chance of getting stolen in a given year, which doesn’t sound like a lot until it happens to you. There were about 700,000 car thefts in the U.S. in 2013, the FBI says.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the “Gone in 60 Seconds” bad guys don’t target just Ferraris and Lamborghinis; they go after meat-and potatoes cars they can move quickly and anonymously. The most stolen car in 2013 was the Honda Accord—53,995 of them were taken. That was followed by the Honda Civic (45,001), Chevrolet Silverado (27,809) and the Ford F-150 (26,494).

Thanks to increasingly sophisticated ignition systems (including cars that can’t be started without the proximity of a complex key), tougher locks and hard-to-defeat alarm systems, plus the breakup of some big international theft rings, auto thievery is down 50 percent since 1991.

In response, thieves are ratcheting up their game with high-tech tools to replace the old dent pullers and coat hangers. They’re using electronic scanner boxes to figure out the remote control’s radio frequency codes, popping the locks, and starting the cars. The boxes, which cost as little as $5, are freely traded on the Internet, says the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Who left the DNA on my steering wheel? DNA coding revealed under ultraviolet light on a BMW. (Applied DNA Sciences photo)To fight back, crime fighters need to get pretty sophisticated, too. So says James Hayward, president and CEO of Applied DNA Sciences, which is working with two European automakers. You know how those CSI guys are always using DNA evidence to find the culprit? Hayward’s DNAnet uses the structure of double-stranded plant DNA and impenetrable ink to code (with VIN numbers, the owner’s name and other identifiers) such car parts as engine blocks, catalytic converters, infotainment systems and windshields. Parts are marked in the factory; an aftermarket kit is also available. The ink is visible under black light, but only after it has been sprayed with a proprietary solution that the company says is provided only to the authorities.

The standard method of coding parts today is called serialization, but Hayward says that numbers stamped on parts are easily removed. “It’s too easy to mill off the numbers, and it’s not admissible as forensic evidence,” he said. The DNA code is painted on with a swab, but the thief can’t tell where, and even if the part was stripped of paint the code would still be there.

It's important to let the dumb DNA know about the smart DNA. (DNA Applied Sciences photo)The conviction rate of thieves in possession of stolen DNA coded parts is 100 percent. In Europe, DNA coding is used for all kinds of things, including systems that automatically spray the coding onto cash if ATMs are broken into. “They use chemicals to take the coding off,” Hayward said, “but I’ve seen cash that was like tissue paper and you could still read the coding.” It can also survive temperatures of 1000 degrees Centigrade, in case thieves try to burn the stuff off. 

Hayward’s business is expanding into aftermarket auto parts, making sure that buyers don’t end up with look-a-like counterfeits.

Other companies are getting into this, too. DataDots are also sprayed or brushed on, with the unique codes stored on a secure cloud data base (in Hayward’s case it has “military grade” security). It’s popular to code the copper wiring that’s the target of today’s scrap metal thieves. (Did you see Nightcrawler?)

Paging CSI! Using a swab to apply DNA coding to a rear view mirror. (DNA Applied Sciences photo)And here’s the wildest form of DNA protection: With Australia’s Data Car Guard, when the alarm is triggered and movement is detected, the would-be thief gets a face-full of nontoxic DNA spray. “Now the thief has been sprayed and is marked with your unique DNA code,” the company says. The authorities see the DNA and UV solution under a black light.

There's more cool stuff like this. I was just told about the crowd-funded Project Overlord RimTech, a device to keep your wheels on your car (unlike that poor Honda Fit above). It's "a small device inserted on the tire that is registered to an app on your smart phone." When and if the wheels are tampered with, an alarm is sounded, you get an alert on your phone app, and the police are called. Even better, you can track where your wheels end up, to within 10 feet. And Kiekert is showing the secure door opener of the future at the Geneva Motor Show; it's an electronic latch with no actual handle. "Contact with a touch sensor on the door's outer skin is all it takes for the vehicle door to open automatically," the company says...."The opening and closing of the door is accompanied by individualized acoustics." Try to steal a car with no door handles!

I like the idea of DNA coding for thieves. Maybe the next time one calls me with a fake security system pitch the word “scam” will appear on my phone screen. Here on video is one of today's hand-held car thiefs in action:


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