We often get asked about whether what we see in the movies is realistic. Can people really listen to a safe lock and ‘crack’ them open? Can it be done in under 10 minutes? Do you need a stethoscope to listen to it? What about electronic safe locks?
Yes, safes can be cracked, but the issue is, what does “cracked” mean? In the industry, we typically use the term ‘manipulated’ when referring to opening safes by unlocking the lock without using force. This is usually only possible with mechanical combination locks or combination dial safes. Key locked safes can be ‘manipulated’ opening by using lock picks to unlock the key lock for a non-destructive opening as well.
Our team of safe technicians, as well as most other safe experts we know, don’t use stethoscopes, although some do still use types of listening aids or amplifiers. Usually, the skill involves touch and feel, instead of sound to manipulate the lock open. However, there is a lot to be said for the ability to mentally map what is happening inside the lock, as well as track the numbers used throughout the process.
There are a variety or aids that can be used to increase the effectiveness in opening mechanical combination safe locks by feel, though none can replace the effectiveness of study and practice.
Professional safe technicians will have a very good understanding of exactly what is happening inside a safe lock even without seeing inside it. They must have a good understanding of how and why the manipulation techniques work on a particular lock, allowing them to feel for the very discreet markers and indicators that help them to determine the code.
There are multiple wheels inside the lock that need to be aligned at the correct position, or number, to allow the lock to move into the unlocked position. The general idea with combination safe locks is that due to manufacturing tolerances, the wheels in the safe lock will be ever so slightly out from being perfectly round in shape, so we can try to find the high and low points of the wheel, then use these to our advantage.
Many safe technicians will use plotting charts or just paper to record any marker they find while assessing the wheel of the lock. Once all the points of the wheels have been plotted, we can gain a clear picture of where the unlocking points will be. With this information, we can sequence the locks in a way that allows us to determine the code and unlock the safe.
Obviously, the level of details we include in a website blog must be limited so we don’t give too much away, but we can at least share the basics so you can understand you are not being completely lied to by Hollywood.
Safe Central hosts a national safe manipulation competition annually as part of the Master Locksmiths Association conference, and while we have had numerous times posted under 15 minutes, it is much more likely this will take a good safe technician 30-60 minutes, or even longer, to manipulate. It can be considerably longer if the lock is a 4-wheel combination lock. So maybe we will just settle for saying that the movies do embellish the truth a little for entertainment value.
Digital, or electronic safe locks typically can’t be manipulated open. Or at least, good quality ones can’t. Cheap electronic safes, like those sold in hardware or office supply stores, use cheap, generic electronics to create a locking function on the inside of the safe. These can usually be manipulated, or bypassed very easily using power spikes, magnets or just a little flick in the right spot.
A proper, good quality safe lock made by a reputable safe lock manufacturer, typically cannot be manipulated open without force, such as drilling or cutting. As software catches up, devices can be produced to reprogram these locks, but they do not work on the most modern safe lock models.
So, what do you do with all this information? In short, be confident with locks and products sold through reputable safe companies. The knowledge and skills needed to open safes by manipulation are possessed by the same police-licensed safe experts that are advising on the best type of safes to use. If they are hard for us to open, they are considerably harder for anyone else to open.
In reality, we don’t see safes being broken into by manipulation. The vast majority of attacks are forced entry attacks, which means that you should really focus on a safe that resists these kinds of attacks as a priority. Then, just make sure it has a good brand behind it, and is fitted with a good quality safe lock, so you have the best of both worlds.