One new twist on cyber crime has popped up using Bluetooth. It’s not sophisticated, it’s just an enhanced form of smash-and-grab.
Your laptop, tablet, and cell phone probably has Bluetooth. You might use it to connect to your car for phone calls or audio sharing. Left in your car, those devices may continue broadcasting while you are away. With a Bluetooth scanner from the app store, anyone can walk through a parking lot looking for Bluetooth devices. Many scanners are available for free, and I’ve used them successfully to locate Bluetooth beacons at my local grocery store. It’s not hard at all. If you’ve ever played the “getting warmer/colder” game, you can do it yourself. According to the marketing for one popular app:
Bluetooth Smart Scanner is the fastest app to find all Bluetooth Low Energy (also known as Bluetooth 4.0 or Bluetooth Smart) devices around you. It shows detailed information that Bluetooth Low Energy devices advertise, including device name, signal strength (RSSI), supported services, battery level, etc.
It’s not unusual to see people walking through parking lots while staring at their phones. Working alone or in pairs, this is an extremely fast way for thieves to target vehicles with valuable electronics. Is this a theoretical crime that never happens, like RFID skimming? According to police, it’s a real crime. As explained in WIRED:
…law enforcement officials have confirmed to WIRED that at least some burglars do use Bluetooth scanners to guide certain break-ins. “In our corridor, yes, we have noticed that they are in use,” says Monica Rueda, a crime prevention specialist at the San Jose Police Department in California. “Right now we do know that thieves are utilizing them.” Rueda declined to name specific apps or features that are in use, citing ongoing investigations.
Other police departments concur. In 2018, lieutenant Joe Donleavy of the Walnut Creek, California, Police Department wrote on Nextdoor, “When a person attempts to hide their laptop computer or other electronic device under a car seat or in a glove box out of sight, it’s possible for a Bluetooth scanner to let a thief know that an electronic device is in that car.”
Bluetooth scanners are, free, easy to use, and seem like a tempting addition to any thief’s toolbox.
How to defend?
In this case, the best defense is also low-tech. Don’t leave your electronics unattended. It’s simple and fool-proof. If you absolutely need to leave your devices in your car, be sure they are turned off and not just asleep. Wireless headsets, GPS systems, or cell phones left charging in your car are likely advertising their location to anyone who cares to listen.