[Originally published March 20, 2012.]
Q: How did you learn to be a safecracker?
A: In 1978 I took a correspondence course to learn the basics of locksmithing. The ad in the Popular Mechanics classifieds said, “Be your own boss.”
The course consisted of about 70 lessons. I’d study each lesson and practice the particular skill required, like how to fit a key, lock disassembly, rekeying, etc.
Q: What does it mean to fit a key?
A: This is only one of a dozen basic locksmith skills. You insert a blank key, wiggle it while turning and the bumping action creates marks on the key blade. You file where the marks are until the key turns in the lock. It’s also known as “impressioning.”
Q: It seems like you could use this knowledge in bad ways if you wanted to.
A: Clients often ask, jokingly, whether we learn our trade in prison.
Technically, the biggest difference between what a burglar does and what I do is that the burglar wants to get in and out quickly and doesn’t care if the safe ever gets used again. I take my time because my objective is opening it with minimal damage so the owner can use it again.
A criminal safecracker also needs different knowledge and skills, beyond the technical, that I don’t have or need. I don’t need to know how to avoid leaving evidence, circumvent an alarm system, plan a get-away, or fence-stolen goods.
Q: Is it hard to open a safe?
A: Safecracking is about solving problems and overcoming challenges. That’s the fun part. There are basic skills and advanced skills. Expensive, burglary-resistant safes require advanced skills.
Q: How often do people get locked in vaults?
A: More often than you’d think and bank PR departments would like.
Usually the victims are children or seniors. Grandpa is busy examining the contents of his safe deposit box at closing time when a bank employee only performs part of the vault-closing procedure. Some vaults are L-shaped or there may be alcoves or obstructions inside, so it can happen if the closer doesn’t “walk the vault” as well as call out to possible occupants.
There was one case recently where a bank employee accidently locked her own child in the vault. Mom returned to finish “closing out” which included locking the vault. Again, skipping part of the procedure: “Hello? Anybody in there?” and the kid, playing hide and seek, kept quiet. Mom set the time lock and locked the door without walking in and looking, as was required by procedure. The time lock disengages only when the time runs out, usually an hour before the bank opens for business the next day. Once the door is locked, the time lock is automatic.
This was a comedy of errors from start to finish. First, the bank people called the vault service company and were told that the vault is ventilated, and there’s even a tool slot where a candy bar or juice can be passed through, and the mom can also talk to the kid through it until he falls asleep. The worst damage that could occur is that the kid pees on the carpet.
They also called the FBI bank robbery unit and were advised to make a hole in the wall because the time lock couldn’t be released from the outside. They called paramedics and firefighters who decided to drill a hole in the vault wall because they weren’t told about the ventilator.
It was decided to use a concrete coring company. They avoided the door and used a sixteen-inch concrete saw to make a hole in the vault wall. They were lucky because they managed to avoid hitting and destroying the valuables and documents within hundreds of metal safe deposit boxes stacked against the inside vault walls and rented to bank customers.
By the time they called me, they were halfway through the coring and starting to worry about a successful outcome. It would have cost $9K for me to come out, drill a small precise hole to destroy a five or six dollar part within the time lock, clean up a little drilling debris, replace the part, repair the tiny hole in the door so that the drill resistance was restored and have the door working again, all on the same day.
On the other hand, coring is a messy job. Water is used for lubrication and cooling during the procedure. There’s a mud trench to collect the mud and runoff, but it eventually results in lots of dust. Everything in the bank gets coated when it goes airborne. It gets into the computers, ATMs, bill counters, printers and on every surface. Unless each and every machine is thoroughly cleaned, the abrasive dust will eventually cause breakdowns.
The cost for concrete coring was only $2K, but they didn’t factor in the consequential costs. In addition to repairing the vault wall to the manufacturer’s specifications (about $6K), this incident ended up costing over $100K, including the cost to taxpayers for emergency personnel, extensive cleanup, and the repair or replacement of every piece of equipment that failed due to the dust plague. The bank might also have avoided embarrassing news coverage of the incident. Later, the bank manager told me, “I wish they’d have hired you.”
Q: Did they fire the mother?
A: No, they said that even though she broke procedure, the incident was punishment enough.
Q: How realistic are movies that show people breaking into vaults?
A: Not very! In the movies it takes five minutes of razzle-dazzle; in real life it’s usually at least a couple of hours of precision work for an easy, lost combination lockout.
Most vault lockouts are caused by malfunctions. A bank employee over-winds the time lock, a technician makes a mistake servicing the vault, or there was no maintenance because the bank has initiated yet another round of cost cutting.
Another 10-20% of my income comes from law enforcement searches and seizures or estate, aka “dead relative” openings. They hire me and I drill it open, but these are not situations where I like to hang around too long.
Q: Do you ever look inside?
A: I NEVER look. It’s none of my business. Involving yourself in people’s private affairs can lead to being subpoenaed in a lawsuit or criminal trial. Besides, I’d prefer not knowing about a client’s drug stash, personal porn, or belly button lint collection.
When I’m done I gather my tools and walk to the truck to write my invoice. Sometimes I’m out of the room before they open it. I don’t want to be nearby if there is a booby trap.
Q: Why would there be a booby trap?
A: The safe owner intentionally uses trip mechanisms, explosives or tear gas devices to “deter” unauthorized entry into his safe. It’s pretty stupid because I have yet to see any signs warning a would-be culprit about the danger.
Over the years I’ve found several tear gas devices in safes and vaults I’ve opened. These devices were marketed with names like “BEAVER” and “BADGER.” There are safecrackers that collect them.
Q: Have you ever met a lock you couldn’t pick?
A: There are several types of locks that are designed to be extremely pick-resistant, as there are combination safe locks that can slow down my efforts at manipulation.
I’ve never met a safe or lock that kept me out for very long. Not saying I can’t be stumped. Unknown mechanical malfunctions inside a safe or vault are the most challenging things I have to contend with and I will probably see one of those tomorrow since you just jinxed me with that question.