10/12/2021
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Motorhome trackers

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If the worst happens and your motorhome is stolen, a tracking system can help recover it quickly. Here’s a guide to choosing a tracking system

Words by Peter Rosenthal

Page contents

 


Introduction to motorhome trackers

Sadly, with the growth in demand for motorhomes and campervans has come an increase in thefts. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact number, but some police forces reported a 50% increase in 2020. Thankfully, trackers make a huge difference in whether the stolen motorhome or campervan is recovered – the recovery rates for those fitted with an insurance-approved tracker are claimed to be as high as 95%.

And it's not just newer vehicles being stolen either, as the limited availability and high cost associated with spares mean that some older motorhomes are being stolen to be broken down (for things like catalytic converters and engine components).


Standard motorhome security

If your motorhome is under 25 years old, it probably has some form of immobiliser and possibly an alarm. These factory-fitted immobilisers are tricky to bypass as they’re often integrated into the ECU. However, the basic security on motorhomes is always fitted in the same place, meaning it is easy for thieves to find

Professional thieves will either use a relay box – in the case of a keyless-entry vehicle – or may break into a house to steal the keys. Some modern vehicles guard against relay theft, some do not – it’s wise to keep keyless-entry fobs well away from doors and windows in a Faraday bag or box.

The most sophisticated criminal gangs have keymasters that can make up and code an original key. Key cloning is rife and vehicles can be pinpointed and stolen to order. As you can appreciate, a determined professional is tricky to guard against.


How do motorhome trackers work?

How trackers work

(Photo courtesy of Peter Rosenthal)

Most motorhome trackers use a combination of satellite GPS and the mobile phone network to communicate with a control centre. Some additionally use a low-frequency VHF signal. Depending on the package you’ve opted for, this can either be a passive motorhome tracking device – ie, the control centre sends you a message via text, email or phone – or an actively monitored system. All these latter systems will alert you via phone, email or text (depending on how you’ve set it up) that a theft has occurred and, once you’ve alerted the police and have a crime number, will act on your behalf to track the vehicle.

Insurers usually insist on a 24-hour actively monitored system and this can be a great benefit if you’re sleeping, remote from your phone, in a signal black spot or have simply forgotten to charge your phone.

Some of the cheaper trackers only work on the 2G network, rather than the more modern 3G and 4G networks, and it’s worth noting that the 2G network is set to be phased out at some point, but the closure date varies by network and country.

Mike Dille, Phantom’s Technical Manager, points out,

 

There’s a slight benefit to trackers using the 3G and 4G networks as the speed of data transfer is slightly better, but it’s not a big issue as the GPS data files sent are not large.

The key benefit to all trackers, though, is their speed of response – thieves will usually move the vehicle first before dealing with the tracker and it’s this speed of response that can make all the difference to recovering a stolen motorhome. It takes time and skill to detect a tracking system, so speed is everything.


Can a motorhome tracker save on insurance costs?

Phantom motorhome tracking device

(Photo courtesy of Phantom)

The key thing is to differentiate between insurance-approved trackers and more basic models that are only designed to alert the owner.

In practice, many insurers simply will not quote unless you have a tracker fitted if your motorhome or campervan is worth over a preset limit – typically £50,000 to £60,000.

Thatcham is an insurance industry-funded body that tests the efficacy of security products. It rates trackers as S5 or S7 models. An S7 tracker must use GPS features and is deemed an asset recovery system by insurers. An S5 system adds a driver ID tag (also known as ADR – automatic driver recognition) to the system and may also include an immobilisation system, often referred to as S5 plus. Both S5 and S7 systems are proactive and can monitor your vehicle remotely via a control centre that’s active 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Many tracker makers suggest that you’ll get between 10 and 25% discount on your motorhome insurance premium with the fitment of an approved tracker.

Non-insurance-approved trackers are only as good as their installation and many may not be backed up with a large control centre. The other issue is their accuracy and whether or not the police will recover your vehicle if it does get stolen. We once ran into this very issue via an MMM reader who had a DIY tracker fitted.

While his tracker was not insurance-approved, it had provided the location of the motorhome, but it wasn’t accurate enough to allow the police to pinpoint it, so they were unable to help. While the insurance company honoured the claim, there was, of course, the resultant increase in premium.


Key motorhome tracker features explained

Showing some of the features of a motorhome tracker

(Photo courtesy of Peter Rosenthal)

  • Apps: All tracking units come with some form of app that links to the user’s smartphone. These are really easy to use and allow users to remotely monitor their vehicle. If the power is cut to the tracker, the vehicle is moved with ignition off, or it detects movement – being lifted, towed or any vibrations – it will send an alert. This gives great peace of mind. The ease of use of the apps and features vary.
  • Geofencing: All trackers also have a geofence feature that allows users to set an invisible circle around their vehicle. Should it venture outside that circle, the user is alerted and can either take action or the control centre can do so on their behalf. Some allow a couple of geofences to be set as an additional safety net. If you are away from your motorhome for whatever reason, you can check it’s still where you left it and hasn’t been tampered with; the geofence system is an incredibly useful feature for this.
  • Battery life: With a tracker that is not insurance-approved, look at the capacity of the battery – if it’s a 12V-only unit with no built-in battery then it’s of little value – the higher the capacity, the better.
  • Monitoring: With battery backups and 24-hour monitoring, a tracker can help a vehicle be recovered rapidly and the best will even remotely immobilise the vehicle. Like all security devices, they are not infallible to the professional thief, but they’re definitely a big help.

The great thing about trackers is that they’re a non-invasive method of protecting your vehicle and you don’t have to remember to arm them, or press any buttons, to activate.

 


Motorhome tracking device limitations

  • GPS: The majority of trackers use GPS to pinpoint the vehicle’s location. They transmit data to a satellite and this information is then fed back to you via the phone network. Just as a sat-nav system goes off when you enter a tunnel, so does the tracker’s GPS system.

    It is common for thieves to steal a vehicle and then leave it for several days to see if it has a tracker fitted.

    Equally, for a GPS tracker to alert you of an issue, it must send a signal via the mobile phone network – so this relies on a good mobile signal near the tracker and near your phone.
  • Reception: Having active remote monitoring solves the issue with the user’s smartphone reception, but not with the tracker reception. However, tracker firms can usually work out where the vehicle is from when it lost reception.
  • Anti-jamming software: A bigger issue is radio wave jamming devices. Professional thieves can use radio frequency detection devices to check for the location of a tracker and can use radio and GPS blocking devices to prevent them broadcasting the location.

    Some trackers have anti-jamming software that can deal with this and some also broadcast VHF radio signals at various random frequencies to get around these issues. Some ping a signal at irregular long intervals (with a gap of several hours between them) to try and prevent the tracker’s signal being detected, but no tracker is immune from jamming.

    Some of the newest systems actually use the user’s smartphone Bluetooth system as the tag, adding an additional layer of security.
  • Remote immobilisers: One of the downsides to a tracker is that they only activate after something has happened to the vehicle. While the best models will feature some form of remote immobilisation, this is a passive system that is only triggered when the user (or control centre) activates it. To get around this, several firms offer active immobilisation that can be triggered by the owner before the vehicle is stolen. For example, Van Bitz offers a Non Starter MT system for £499 (plus £64.95 a year) that allows you to disarm the vehicle remotely as well as offering tracking features. It’s not an insurance-approved system as it’s monitored and controlled by the owner, not a centre.

Mike Dille, Phantom’s Technical Manager, explains,

 

In practice, the jammers don’t have a very long range and only partially scramble the signals from trackers so they don’t have that much of an effect. As for using VHF signals, they don’t give a very accurate location – often only down to two or three miles and they rely on a beacon-equipped police car tracking. While an ADR tag on an S5 tracker can protect you if your keys are cloned and alert a control centre, they can’t protect if your original set of keys are stolen. Ironically, earlier Thatcham tracker categories insisted that the ADR tag be kept remote from the key, making them safer, but owners would invariably lose the tag, leave it in the vehicle or put it on the fob anyway, so this was dropped. ADR/ID tags can be either credit card-style or key fob tags.

Mike adds,

 

We supply separate driver ID tags in the form of credit cards and we recommend that drivers always keep them separate from their keys. With no tag present, the immobiliser will be active and the vehicle can’t be driven away if the original keys are stolen.


What does a motorhome tracker cost

  • Subscriptions: All trackers rely on the mobile phone network and need some form of subscription to work and this can vary from around £60 a year for an unmonitored basic model with an inbuilt SIM card, to around £200 a year for an all-singing-and-dancing insurance-approved package.

    Some tracker systems also offer lifetime subscriptions – typically costing several hundred pounds – but these are not always transferable so, if you sell your motorhome, you’ll have to renew the package or even buy another unit. If you plan to keep your motorhome a long time – as most of us do – then these lifetime subscriptions can still work out cheaper. Many also offer discounts for buying two to five-year subscriptions.
  • Mobile SIM costs: Some systems allow you to use your own SIM card, so you can take advantage of a cheap network deal. But make sure you use a network approved by the tracker manufacturer and that it is regularly topped up (a monthly plan is preferable), and has all roaming blocks removed (so it will still work throughout Europe). There may be all manner of extra charges in going down this route so it’s preferable to use a system with a built-in SIM.
  • Device costs: Back2You, for example, offers its subscription-free, wire-free motorhome tracker for £225, but you’ll need to factor in the cost of a pay-as-go SIM card. It also has the battery-powered Guardian Extra with a built-in SIM card for £195 that includes the first 12 months’ subscription (£60 pa renewal), and wired GPS trackers from £195.

Prices for insurance-approved models start from around £199 fitted, but this often doesn’t include the subscription costs, so check if you need to add that in – this can cost more than the unit price!

The prices included in the table are the quoted prices we’ve found online (mainly from the manufacturer), but it’s worth shopping around as the initial fitted costs can vary.

This is an overview of what’s available and new models are being added all the time as manufacturers develop new anti-theft features.

Motorhome tracker brand comparison table

Below is a list of different brands of motorhome trackers detailing Thatcham ratings, features and prices. All information is correct at the time of writing.

Make Thatcham rating Features (24 indicates 24-hour monitoring) Unit cost Monthly subs Annual subs Lifetime subs
Autowatch Track & Trace ATT1 S7 24, GPS £199 £12.49 £149 £499
Autowatch Track & Trace ATT5 S5 24, GPS, ADR Immobiliser (optional) £499 £13.49 £159 £599
CanTrack Protect (self-fit battery only) S7 24, GPS £249   £149  
Hal Locate HAL3000 S7 24, GPS £299   £149  
Meta Trak S5 Deadlock S5 24, GPS, ADR, immobiliser £469   £169.95  
Meta Trak S7 ATS S7 24, GPS, immobiliser (£199 option) £229   £99.95  
Phantom iTrack Ultimate S5 24, GPS, ADR, immobiliser £599 £13.50 £149 £399
Phantom iTrack S5 S5 24, GPS, ADR £499 £13.50 £149 £399
Phantom iTrack Plus S7 24, GPS, alarm linked £349 £13.50 £149 £399
Phantom iTrack S7 S7 24, GPS £249 £13.50 £149 £399
Rewire Security S7 S7 24, GPS £149   £150  
Rewire Security S5 S5 24, GPS, ADR £199   £150  
Rewire Security S5+ S5 24, GPS, ADR immobiliser £349   £200  
ScorpionTrack S7 S7 24, GPS £199 £9.95 £109.95 £399
Scorpion S5-VTS S5 24, GPS, ADR, immobiliser (£100 option) £399 £12.95 £129.95 £499
SmarTrack Protector Pro S7 24, GPS £199 £12.49 £149 £499
SmarTrack 5 Plus S5 24, GPS, driver ID via smartphone, immobiliser £545 £16.99 £199 £699
Sargent (factory-fitted on Swift & Auto-Trail) S7 24, GPS, linked to alarm N/A   £95-£130  
Trackstar S5 S5 24, GPS, ADR, immobiliser £549   £168  
Trackstar S5 Advance S5 24, GPS, ADR £399   £168  
Trackstar S7 S7 24, GPS £199   £168  
Tracker S5 Plus S5 24, GPS, VHF, ADR £589   £219  
Tracker Locate S7 24, GPS, VHF £285   £189  
Van Bitz Shadow VTS S5 24, GPS, ADR immobiliser (option) £399   £169.95  
Vodafone Protect & Connect S5 24, GPS, ADR £399   £159  
Vodafone Protect & Connect S7 24, GPS £199   £145  


Motorhome tracker fitting

Installing a tracker

(Photo courtesy of Peter Rosenthal)

The most basic tracker types are a basic black box that can be connected to a 12V battery via two leads. Some are disguised as USB sockets and can simply be plugged into a 12V socket, while others are disguised as relays or all manner of other normal-looking automotive accessories.

Units that plug into the vehicle’s (OBD) diagnostic port are pretty useless – it’s one of the first things a thief would check.

More sophisticated systems tend to use small black boxes buried somewhere in the vehicle and hardwired in place – these can be in multiple places and have several aerials. We’re not going to show any images of these.


Other motorhome security measures

Wheel clamp

(Photo courtesy of Peter Rosenthal)

With the increasing level of electronic sophistication adopted by criminals, it’s recommended also using mechanical devices to protect your motorhome – they won’t stop a professional, but they will slow thieves down and will deter opportunists.

Motorhome steering wheel locks are a common device to use, but unless they cover the whole steering wheel, they’re of limited use – the bar type can actually help thieves if they need to break the steering lock as they give extra leverage! As the steering wheel is made of mild steel, thieves will often just cut the rim to remove the lock – so fit a complete steering wheel cover.

Some people chain the cab door handles together, but as most door handles are plastic and easily chopped off, this takes seconds to get around. You’re better fitting an extra security lock on the habitation door – that’s where most thieves gain entry.

Pedal locks that cover the clutch, brake and throttle pedals are another useful visual deterrent and tricky to get around.

Wheel clamps and security posts are both obvious visual deterrents and can be very useful, especially against opportunist thieves. But, as with all devices, given the time, opportunity and the likelihood of not being disturbed, even these can be overcome by a determined gang.

With all mechanical devices, you have to balance the inconvenience of using and storing them with the benefit they bring. Fitting a steering wheel cover, wheel clamp and chaining your motorhome might be a great visual deterrent but will be a pain to have to remove each time you want to use your vehicle.

But brightly coloured, obvious security devices do put thieves off and are a visual statement of how seriously you take vehicle security, so do use them.

More advice about motorhome security, door locks and more here


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