Safes: To Crack Or Not To Crack, That Is The Question!

We once purchased a safe from an estate sale, and promptly locked the combination inside (dumb, yes, but lets assume the fault lies with one of our children!). Two possible scenarios came to mind to access the contents of the safe: one was the scene from the The Apple Dumpling Gang (a movie we recently felt compelled to expose our kids to from our own childhood). I don't remember the details of the scene, but it ended with a large explosion, money flying everywhere, and no one injured - only a bit of soot on everyone's face. Though there was no disclaimer, the scene screamed at me ?DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!? My next thought was of The Italian Job and Charlize Theron. She had quite a touch in opening the most difficult safe under stressful situations successfully and without causing any damage to the safe. Hmmm? Not knowing Charlize personally, I decided to call my local locksmith to get his take on the situation. It turned out that he had seen this problem before and had quite a ?sensitive? ear for this type of thing.

So, when needing to access a safe, there is one simple question to ask: Do I need to keep the safe intact? Though it was not a realistic option for me, brute force is one of the methods for opening a safe. The other main safecracking methods involve either lock manipulation or manipulating a weak point on the safe (or as seen in popular media: drilling).

The best method to use is lock manipulation. How sweet would be the satisfaction to leave no sign of having ever been there! The safe owner comes in on Monday morning, opens his safe, and all the gold bars are missing. There are no indications of a break-in. Though you could leave a calling card inside the safe, something that says, ?Safe cracked courtesy of the Ghost? (or whatever cool name you come up with).

Surprisingly enough, the first way a safecracker will usually attempt to open a safe is to guess the combination. Manufactured safes often come with a manufacturer-set combination, which many people fail to reset. Most of these try-out combinations are industry standard and are accessible to locksmiths and safecrackers. With time being an issue, you might as well try the easiest thing first. If the try-out combination does not work, then a quick search of the room may reveal the combination. Often people leave their combination written down somewhere close by, sometimes even on the safe itself! Or, the owner uses easy to remember numbers, such as a birth date.

If no number is to be found or guessed correctly, then the safecracker must move on to more difficult options. To have to sit there with patience and your ear pressed up against the safe is probably the most pure form of safecracking among the professionals. It takes a great deal of skill and practice. For us non-safecracking people, it is the romantic and mysterious way to crack a safe. But it is also scientific. Harry C. Miller in 1940, described the following three-step process to discover the combination to a safe:

  1. Determine contact points
  2. Discover the number of wheels
  3. Graph your results
    I am not going into detail now on how this works, but lets just say that once the numbers are graphed, you just have to try the different possibilities to discover what order they go in to open the safe.

There are also autodialing machines to open safes. Auto-dialers try all the different numerical possibilities until the combination is discovered. This can be very time consuming, and are best used if the combination only has 3 digits.

Another method is to compromise a weak point on a safe by drilling. Drilling can be used to give the safecracker visual access to the locking mechanism. If they can see the mechanism, they can open the safe. Most manufactured safes have an ideal drill point and these are published by the manufacturer, though it is closely guarded information by manufacturers and locksmiths. More secure safes have relockers that are triggered by drilling. It is a piece of glass mounted between the safe door and the lock. When the drill hits the glass, spring-loaded bolts are released that block the retraction of the main locking bolt. Sometimes this can be avoided if it is possible to drill in from the side or back of the safe. Instead of trying to visually access the combination, two holes are drilled, one for a borescope to see what you are doing, the other for an extra-long screwdriver to remove the back plate and gain accesses to the lock. The screwdriver can then be used position the wheels of the lock so that the safe door can be opened.

Obviously, manufacturers try to combat safe manipulation methods. Besides relockers, different materials are used (such as cobalt) that are almost impossible to drill through. Special drill bits are needed and a lot of time.

Now, if noise is not an issue (you have been able to physically remove the safe to a remote location), then sometimes more physical methods can be used. This can include plasma cutters to cut through the safe, or explosives such as jam shots using nitroglycerin or C-4 to blow the door off the safe.

If you are a homeowner like me, I would suggest messing around with your ear pressed against the safe, just for the fun of it, and then calling a locksmith. Then you can watch the magic at work and wonder if you could ever do it!

Privacy Versus Security Enhancement

Where home security hardware is concerned, some of it constitutes real security hardware and some of it is simply designed to provide some privacy. Knowing the difference can help you improve your home security habits.

On your front door, if you've set things up correctly, you'll find a deadbolt, a kick plate and a locking door knob. In this situation, the deadbolt and kick plate are both security hardware. Together, they make it very difficult for anyone to open the door with a kick or a shoulder. The key-in-knob lock, however, is simply a privacy-enhancing device. If someone were to approach the house and simply try to open the door, the key-in-knob lock would let them know it's locked. If that person happened to be a thief and there was no deadbolt or kick plate in place, the key-in-knob lock would do essentially nothing to stop them from opening the door. This should serve to answer any questions about whether or not deadbolts are necessary.

Windows are privacy enhancing devices that can be transformed into legitimate security devices, given the right modifications. For instance, standard glass is not a security device. It will keep someone from entering your home by shattering the glass provided they're no stronger than a toddler. Adding laminate or tempered types of glass to a window, however, make it a much more formidable means of controlling access. A window that is reflective from the outside is a privacy enhancing device, obviously, as well as a security device as it keeps the contents of your home safe from prying eyes.

Screen doors are privacy devices. They allow a homeowner to, essentially, enjoy having their door wide open in the warmer months while still presenting a hindrance to anyone who would simply walk in uninvited. Remember that security value can be assessed, partially, on the difficulty of the obstacle it presents. A screen door that can be simply kicked in is no real obstacle. An iron door with screens added to it to allow it to function as a screen door, however, is a very real security device. Security is about making crime as difficult as possible.

When assessing home security, it's important to note where privacy devices have been used in place of legitimate security hardware. A shed or garage that has only a key in knob lock and flimsy glass windows is probably safe from anyone whose intentions are simply to be rude. If someone wants to steal your belongings, however, those devices will do little to discourage, or stop, them.

An alarm system is probably the device most accessible to homeowners that offers the greatest possible level of security. In any scenario, having a professionally installed alarm system makes it very difficult to break into a home undetected. They also work by taking simple privacy devices, such as windows, and outfitting them with monitors which has the effect of turning a privacy device into a security device in its own right.

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