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Expensive Primary Keys (A.K.A Hacking Your Car Key’s SecuriLock)

Published 30 August 2006 2:37 am

You may have thought this blog entry was about databases, but no.  It’s about Ford fleecing me on a set of keys.  Actually it’s more about me whining because I lost my keys and they are really expensive to replace, but whatever.  If you have a newer car with a computer chip’ed key, then you will probably find this interesting.  And if you are thinking to yourself, “My car keys don’t have a computer chip in them” then you may want to check into it because if they are a newer model vehicle, then they probably do.

In 2003 my wife and I became proud owners of a Ford Escape, which apparently has what Ford calls the second generation SecuriLock Passive Anti-Theft System (also known as the PATS II).  I also have a 1997 Camero which has the Chevrolet version of the SecuriLock system, but you can actually see the computer chip embedded in the part of the key that goes into the transmission.  Apparently they have more powerful chips now so they put the chip in the key handle instead of the stem.  If you are not sure if you have a computer chip in your key, take a good look at your key.  If you have a huge black handle on your key, and it’s a newer car, then chances are pretty good that there is a computer chip embedded in it.  Anyway, I had no idea about all the technology packed into this Ford Escape Key.

Long story short, I left some softball equipment in the Escape and my wife took the Escape to work and locked it.  Since she is a school teacher, I cannot just barge into the School and ask her for her keys.  And since she is a volleyball coach she wasn’t planning on coming home before my game that night.  So I told the dealership my sad story and told them I needed them to cut me a new key.  After confirming my identity through a tedious process, they told me the damage:  $36 bucks for the key.  Not bad, I thought, considering that I pay $40 for the Camero keys.  Oh, and then they informed me that the $36 bucks was just for the physical key itself, and that it would cost an additional $40 to program the key.

What?  That seems pretty outlandish to me.  I can understand the $36 bucks for a key because, hey, it’s a dealership and everything they have is overpriced.  I’m cool with paying a bit more at the dealership because they can cut it without having an original there, but a $40 dollar programming fee?  They send the intern to the back of the shop, stick the key in a computer, press a couple of buttons, and out comes your new programmed key.  Definitely not $40 bucks of work in my book.  I tried to console myself by saying that the machine they used to program the key must be expensive and this is their way of recouping the cost. 

Then I started looking into the PATS system.  Did you know that you can program a key in your own car? In the first generation PATS system, all you need is one programmed key and you can make a spare key in your own ignition.  You just put the original key in the ignition, turn the ignition to just before the engine starts up, turn off the ignition, put your new key in, turn the engine almost on, leave it for a few seconds until the security light flashes, and boom, you have a programmed key (at least that is the basic idea, check your car manual and Internet sites that you trust for specific instructions).  Maybe “hacking” is really not what to call it, but considering how few people seem to know about it I’ll allow it to stand.  And the fact that you can program a key in your own ignition just goes to show you that the $40 programming fee is a complete rip.  Anyway, I would have been in luck if I had a first generation PATS system.

The problem is that I have a second generation PATS system, which requires you have two fully functional keys if you want to program another one.  It’s pretty much the same process, but you have to put in two pre-programmed keys before putting in the one you want programmed.  The problem is that they only give you two keys to start out with, so by the time you loose one your have no choice but to resort to the dealership. 

Originally I thought the second generation PATS system was completely ridiculous because if a car thief has a set of my keys, he’s not going to be sitting in my driver’s seat worried about not being able to make a second set of keys.  He’s going to be driving off with my car.  But I can see a possible scenario where a sinister valet parker with a key grinder could make a single copy of your key, stick it in your car, use your existing key to program the copy, then figure out where you live and come steal your car from your house later that night.

But these PATS systems don’t seem to have stemmed the tide of new car thefts, so car thieves apparently have some way of circumnavigating the system.  So right now, all the PATS is doing for me making me upset that I have to shell out $75 bucks for a new key.

And don’t get me started on the little remote unlocking device that was on the key chain I lost either.

If you plan ahead, you can buy uncut, un-programmed PATS keys from EBay for as little as $10.  Of course, you have to be careful who you buy from because there is a lot of fraud out there with people selling keys that look like PATS keys that don’t actually containing a computer chip.  And you can program them yourself if you have enough keys (which is why you need to plan ahead).  For those of you interested in a bit more reading on the PATS system and how to make your own keys, here’s a start:

New Ford Vehicles with PATS

13 Responses to “Expensive Primary Keys (A.K.A Hacking Your Car Key’s SecuriLock)”

  1. Neil Davidson says:

    Damon,

    There’s an interesting article about these transponder keys on wired:

    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.08/carkey.html

  2. Damon says:

    That’s a great article. It definitely confirms the suspicion about car thieves being able to make off with your theft-proof car. And now that I’ve complained about the cost of the keys that probably means Geico will red flag me if my car is ever stolen for harboring ill-sentiment towards anti-theft devices and cracking a plan to recoup my $75 bucks via insurance fraud. I guess I can just sit and hope that any would be thieves just gut the car and don’t drive off with it.

  3. Richard Mitchell says:

    I wish I wish I wish my keys were that cheap. I bought myself a second hand Toyota Corolla last year but when I went to pick it up from the place where I bought it they informed me that there was only the one key, ok says I, they say a new one would cost about 70 quid from Toyota, a little on the steep side but still not bad.

    So after a while I go into Toyota to request the key, the actual price is about 140 quid including an hour of labour to set it up! I still only have one key and live in the hope that I never ever lose it.

    nb. for ‘merricans 140 quid is about 266.49 US$ *ouch*

  4. Steve infield says:

    I’ve just bought a 10 year old Honda Accord and wish to get a copy of my (chipped) key. Somehow, the previous owners copied the keys as the so-called master they gave me isn’t, but I have a ‘non-Honda’ key working nevertheless.

    The garage say that because the master is lost, they would need to re-do the locks… everything. About £350 + the proverbial old Vat ‘ 17.5%…Lovely.

    Any ideas as to how I can get a copy through less ‘offiicial’ channels, or like Richard, am I just going to have to make sure I don’t lose my key?

    I’m very ignorant about a lot of computer stuff; above, the site asks for my ‘URL’ (optional)…well, what’s a URL? ! Please reply once you’ve recovered from your laughter fit!

    Yours sincerely,

    Steve Infield

  5. Damon says:

    Steve,

    Your best bet is probaby to look on EBay for someone selling a cheap version of your key and ask them how to go about getting it setup. I found ones for my car for about $8. It could be scam, but for $8 bucks I figure it’s worth the chance. Just make sure to check the seller ratings to see how credible they are.

    You can get it cut by a standard locksmith for fairly cheap, the trick is figuring out how to get the chip activated. Just ask the seller if there is a way to get the chip activated on the key he is selling you without the master key. They will probably know more about the specifics of your vehicle and whether or not it’s possible.

    Hope you don’t have to have your locks redone.

  6. substanger says:

    You lost me. First you said your keys were in the back of the Escape, but that you couldn’t bug your wife at work to retrieve them, then towards the end, you stated you lost the keys.

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that you DIDN’T have to buy a PATs key, and you don’t have to buy a PATs key off ebay. The dealership parts dept. could have (should have) after ID’ing you, just cut you a regular Ford key that you could have used to open the car door, and retrieve you keys. We do it ALL the time!! Couldn’t use that key to start the vehicle, but you have a spare in case you lock the keys in the car. $2.00 maybe.

  7. Damon says:

    Substanger:

    Hopefully this will reorient you so you won’t be lost anymore. I said my softball equipment was in the back of the Escape, not my keys. My wife had the keys, and I could not get them from her. Normally this is not a problem because cars come with a second set of keys. Unfortunately, the second set of keys were lost months earlier. Since I like having 2 sets of keys, and had gone so long without, I figured that while I was down at the dealership that I would just have them cut another ignition key.

    But my wallet was one of the things that were also in the escape, so I only had about $50.00 in cash that I could scrounge up around the house (my ATM / Credit cards were with my wallet). Luckily I also scrounged up enough random crap so Ford could be reasonably sure it was in fact me who was requesting a new key without the original. But the cost of the key + the cost of the “programming” was more than the amount of cash I had on me. So I got the ignition key cut for $36.00 with the intent of going back later and paying to get it programmed when I had my wallet.

    The dealership could have cut me a $2.00 key, but that wouldn’t have helped towards getting another ignition key later on (and I doubt it would have been $2.00). And I still think that $40.00 programming fee is ridiculous because my car apparently has all of the equipment you need to program a key. If the dealership was trying to recoup the cost of a $10,000 key programming machine then it would be a slightly different story.

  8. Diahni says:

    Bless you, Damon – Once again, I lost the spare to my Honda – at least eighty bucks a pop. I’ll check out some cheapie blanks on Ebay. I’m also wondering if I could reprogram a key from a totaled car. What a rip, eh?

  9. cineaste says:

    I was told by someone that if I bought a used Mercedes key on ebay, the dealer would program it for me for $10. balony. I bought said key for $25+ shipping (retail $320) and brought it to the dealer, and they said “No way” – “can’t help you”.

    I tried the above method to program the purchased, used key, but didn’t work. So had to fork over $325 to dealer, wait many hours for process, plus i lost $30 for the used key, now worthless.

    thought I’d share, just so some others might learn from my expensive, tedious experience.

  10. Anonymous says:

    To facilitate use an infant Car Seat often include a base that is engaged in the backseat of the car at any time. When carry the baby, the safety seat is independent of the base and then return to the Car Seat back to seat the core of which is attached

  11. terry12345 says:

    I just had a key made that has a computer chip in the handle and it cost a total of $28.00 this included cutting and the key. I went to a locksmith that I found in the phone book whose ad stated they could do the computer chip keys. What they did to figure which key to use was put my key into an OHM meter and then they selected the proper key from the dealers style keys. Once you k now the OHMs them you can get a key off e-bay or where-ever as long as it has the same OHMs and then get it cut.

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