How Safe is Your Safe?

By Ric Blum

Just how safe is your safe? Is it made of 21st century, burglary-resistant composite materials? Does it have intricate locking and relocking devices? Does it use digital time locks to prevent unauthorized entry?
The average safe is not that hard to break into. All you need is the right tools, enough time and the ability to avoid detection. When you buy a better safe, you are actually buying more time for detection to occur.
The first thing to accept is if your safe is the burglar’s primary target, this is not going to be your ordinary burglary. Burglars who are targeting safes are going to be well trained and experienced. They will know locks, alarms, the use of the proper tools, your store layout and usually have an idea of the contents of your safe. They will know what kind of safe you have and exactly where it is located. Yes, they might have some inside knowledge of your operation, too.
You won’t have been chosen at random, but will be specifically targeted. A lot of time, effort and planning will have gone into this brazen attack. And you might have been targeted because of your lack of concern over security issues.
How will a burglar enter your store? Too often, business owners concentrate only on the doors.?Criminals know to look at the big picture.

Sneaking In and Watching

Illegal entry should be discreet — that is why rooftop entry is so popular. Often, if the owner or police show because of an alarm, they shake the door, look around and if nothing seems out of order, they leave.
As Jeweler’s Mutual Insurance reports, “Guards or police officers responding to a burglar alarm signal may not be able to detect exterior signs of forced entry and may leave without further investigation. Other times, burglars may trigger an alarm signal and wait to see who responds and how long it takes.”
A professional burglar may attempt to gain entry to your business in steps. First, he gets into an adjacent, unalarmed business. Next, he enters your business from above the ceiling (roof) and prepares to deactivate the alarm system. Your alarm system control box is not located above the drop ceiling, is it? Even if it isn’t, chances are all the wires feed up the wall into the ceiling.
Or a burglar may attempt to access your safe, possibly from the rear, from inside the vacant store to avoid your alarm system altogether.
Many experts say that safes located on an outside wall present the most risk. The risk will quadruple if the outside wall is next to a vacant business. Vacant space could be adjacent, above or below your business.
If a new tenant moves in, make sure they are legitimate. Landlords often overlook things like legitimacy when a store room has been sitting empty for a while.
If you must have your safes on an exterior wall, install alarmed glass panels on rear and sides of the safe to help prevent penetration from an exterior wall and include shock and vibration sensors.

Location, Location, Location

Whether your safe is on display for the public to see or hidden in back is often a matter of your physical layout or convenience.
I have visited many pawnshops where multiple large safes are located right behind the pawn counter where customers may look into them and see all the envelopes full of jewelry. Is this supposed to make your customers feel their jewelry is safe?
It may not be a wise idea to have your safes exposed to everyone who walks in, especially if they are inadequate for protecting your loans or merchandise. This gives the potential burglar first-hand knowledge of what he is up against and the exact location of your safes. In essence, you are doing the burglar’s homework. He now knows exactly what you have and where it is located.
The logic here is the safe is safer because it is in plain sight. Anyone passing by the pawnshop at night can see the safe, including the police (and the bad guys). The visibility from the street adds an additional layer of protection.
Even if you take the hide-it appraoch, no matter how hard you make it, people will always know where your safe is located.
Delivery people, maintenance people, inspectors, repairmen, pest control, HVAC, remodelers, all notice things when they are in your pawnshop and you have no control over who their friends are or with they share what they saw.
Can this information be shared? You bet! Digital cameras are everywhere. Everyone has one. Cellular phones are capable of taking snapshots or recording full length videos. They even sell surveillance-equipped glasses for discreet recording.
Ideally, you should have a large vault or vault room with safes inside. But this is not always practical or affordable.

Replacement Safes

Many of us are thrifty by nature and for cause. We tend to buy local because we can see the product and save money on shipping. At any given time there are a number of adequate safes listed on eBay. But sometimes, a dollar saved is not really a savings.
If your safes are old and outdated, you can find used safes available everywhere. Hey, the economy isn’t that great. Jewelry stores and other businesses are going out of business every day. Check with your safe specialist, who may have taken a trade-in or possibly acquired a used safe from an expired lease or repossession.
Your safe or vault is undoubtedly your final defense against property loss. And, like most things in life, the bigger (stronger), the better. Again, like most things in life, the more protective the safe, the higher the price tag.
Many pawnbrokers are still using the same safe their grandfathers used. I have seen pawnshops where safes were lined up behind the pawn counter against the wall. These are often what I am fond of calling old “rolling record safes” — large, concrete-filled, single or double-door safes on four wheels whose only real protection is armor plate welded to all six sides. This type of safe is easily peeled open with common hand tools.

50 Years of Improvement

While the iron or steel box safe had been the industry standard for more than 100 years, the first real improvement in safe design came in 1962 when Chubb introduced a new production method incorporating TDR (Torch and Drilling Resistance).
This concept was the creation of a seamless bell casting which formed the five-sided protective walls of the safe. Being cast from a proprietary material which deterred cutting and drilling, the safe seemed to be resistant to all the common tools of the day. The door was made of the same material as the safe body.
Safes were now being filled with newly developed, super hard security concrete fillers as an additional effective barrier against forced penetration.
Concretes with fiber fillers and other additives, which were commonly vibrated onto reinforcements securely affixed inside the safe’s shell casting, also hindered attacks by requiring heavier breaching tools, offering longer resistance and often the need to create more noise and smoke, not to mention operator fatigue.

Safecracking 101

Safecracking is any attempt to open a safe with or without the use of the proper combination or key and generally without the safe owner’s consent. While this effort may take two forms, non-destructive and destructive, the latter tends to be most popular.
First and foremost, one must understand that it is not the lock itself that keeps the safe door closed. These locks are merely the ‘key’ to releasing an elaborate mechanical bolt network that secures the safe door from all sides. The hinges on the safe door are not designed to really provide any protection, but merely to keep the door stable and in place.
How to break into a safe is usually a question that only thieves and locksmiths ponder. But anyone owning a business with a safe should have the same thoughts. The more knowledge you have, the more you can protect yourself and your property.
Your safe’s location should be one of your first concerns. Placing your safe against an outside wall may be the most efficient use of space in your building. And you may have fitted your safe with time locks and door alarm contacts. However, depending upon your location’s physical attributes, you may be offering burglars an opportunity to break into your safe without actually setting foot in your store.
If professional burglars are able to gain access to your store all night or weekend because they have compromised your alarm, they could still gain entry to your TRTL-60X6 safe with the proper equipment. The addition of shock or vibration sensors to your safe will be useless if your alarm system is not operational.
A lot of newer safes have security measures in place to prevent some safecracking techniques popular in the past. However, I know many businesses are still relying upon very old and outdated safes and combination locks for security of their goods. So this data is still applicable.
Electronic time delay locks will keep someone from opening the safe in the usual conventional way – by means of the safe door. But our focus here is more unconventional entries, where the person trying to gain entry may be more inclined to use the back or side of the safe for entry and avoid the door altogether.

Non-Destructive Methods

Non-destructive safecracking is based upon overcoming the combination lock and/or key lock by manipulation. Although not necessarily the easiest method of entry, once the locks have been manipulated with the proper sequence of numbers, or the key lock picked, the door will open without any further resistance — the easiest way to gain entry (by opening the safe door, not manipulating the locks).
Almost all safes are shipped from their manufacturer with a preset try-out combination with the intent for the purchaser to pay his local safe mechanic to change the combination.
This doesn’t always happen. Many safe owners continue to use the try-out combination. These try-out combinations are an industry standard and known to all safe vendors, locksmiths and safecrackers (50 – 25 – 50 and 100 – 50 – 100, used to be popular).
Don’t buy an expensive new safe and then be cheap. Have the combination changed.
One method of lock manipulation used by safe mechanics (these are the good guys who work on your safe) and possibly the best safecrackers was devised by Harry C. Miller in 1940. It allows for opening a locked safe without drilling or defacing the safe by using a stethoscope or other electronic listening device.
Miller’s scientific system is a three-step process which manipulates the lock into exposing its combination.
1) Determine the contact points
2) Discover the number of wheels
3) Graph your results
While not as fast as is seen on TV or in the movies, in reality, it is a system that has merit. Sorry, I’m not going to reveal the entire system.
As technology advances, more and more anti-manipulative locks are being marketed. These locks may use wheels made of softer or lightweight materials such as nylon or polycarbonates which may be just as hard and not as telltale as metal wheels.
Auto-dialers, such as the Intralock ITL 2000 Safe Dialer, are computer controlled devices that test the entire set of possible combinations. They mount to the face of the safe and electronically start to dial away. Although this method is very feasible, it may take a considerable amount of time before the safe’s combination lock is breached.
Intralock advertises their ITL 2000 Safe Dialer as having these features:
• Quick and Easy Set up. Only 15 minutes needed
• No supervision required. Once in place, it runs until safe lock opens.
• Average opening time is 6 hours.
• Non-invasive. Safes remain intact and costly repairs are avoided
• 4 dialing speeds for loose wheels
Wheels can be dialed:
• to every possible safe lock combination
• through a specific range of numbers
• Dialer mount attached by strong rare earth magnets
• Reversible jaws grip most dials
While Intralock only sells its Safe Dialer to licensed, bonded and certified security professionals and to law enforcement, things have a way of getting into the hands of the wrong element.
Vibration is a method that was used in the past and may still be applicable on some older combination locks.
This method applies a vibrating mechanism to the combination dial and allows the wheel gates to slowly rotate to the proper “unlock” position. This occurred because of the weight difference between the wheel and the gate.
Modern combination locks alleviate this method by designing wheels that are evenly weighed.
Radiological attack uses a penetrating radiation (beta ray, gamma ray, neutron beam, ultrasound, and x-ray) from a portable device to discretely view the inner workings of a combination lock.
This aligns the wheels in the correct position to engage the lever arm and open the safe door.
Some combination lock wheels are now made of low density materials to prevent this type of attack.
UL Group 1R type combination locks use acetyl resin or other non-metallic wheels to resist x-ray imaging.
Ultra-Violet and Thermal Imaging
Ultra-violet and thermal imaging, which will show UV residue or heat, may be used to indicate which keys or buttons have been used on a safe with an electronic based combination.
While this method may not show the combination, it will narrow down the possibilities by revealing the numbers used most recently.
This method may also be used to detect the numbers entered into your alarms system’s keypad. Can your safe or alarm’s digital keypad be seen or accessed by others? Can I watch you unlock or enter your combination or codes through a telescope or high-powered camcorder’s zoom lens?
Typically, an item the combination owner will come in contact with is coated with a ultra-violet ink.
When the safe combination is initiated, the ink is transferred to the corresponding keys on the electronic keypad. A simple black light can reveal which keys were used.
Thermal Imaging
Thermal imaging is a specialized technology on its own. But when used in conjunction with electronic access controls (electronic safe locks), it can be a quite effective tool.
Technically, the potential safecracker would need to deploy an uncooled micro bolometer thermal imaging (far infrared) camera within five to ten minutes after an electronic key code was entered.
The heat transferred from human contact, even for a split second to the keys, dissipates very slowly, making a reading of the contact possible after the combination owner has left.
The sequence in which the keys were depressed would also be evident by a difference in the color of the keys as they cool, and are visualized or recorded by the thermal image. This image may even be read from a distance of one to ten meters allowing the safecracker to maintain a low profile.
Handheld portable thermal imaging devices and cameras are made by companies like Flir and Fluke and are available to the public — and yes, you can even buy them on

Care Pays Off

In theory, this all works just fine and I’m sure has been used in a movie plot or two. In reality, usually only inside personnel are able to get that close to a safe soon after it has been opened.
Not that an insider might not want unauthorized access or the opportunity to make a few bucks on the side by selling the combination.
There are simple ways to help overcome this method of attack. Use an inanimate object to depress the keys of the electronic combination lock. Hold your hand over the keypad either before or after (or both) to warm all the keys. Use a number twice to make the actual combination harder to detect. Scrambling keypads are also available for high security instances.
Electronic locks are becoming more popular in safes these days and often allow for each individual with access to have their own access code, which then allows for tracking (for security purposes) to determine who was the last one who may have opened a safe. Sophisticated models have a built-in date and time stamps that may record up to the last 200 users and combination entries.
Advances in technology are not usually far behind innovation. J.D. Hamilton of the Mas-Hamilton Group, innovators in electronic locks, has developed a safecracking software that interfaces with electronic locks and will run a sequences of numbers until it finds the proper combination to open an electronic lock. There are reported to be a number of clones of this software on the market.
In these types of scenarios, I see the keypad to your alarm system most susceptible to these threats. Gaining access and deactivating the alarm is step one.
Does your safe or alarm’s electronic keypad have white keys? If so, keep them clean. Dirt from your fingers will eventually build up on the keys and make it easy for anyone to observe which keys are regularly depressed and which are not. n

Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a multi-part series on safes and security.

Ric Blum is a vice president of Ohio Loan Co. in Dayton. He has served as president of the Ohio Pawnbrokers Association, secretary/treasurer of the National Pawnbrokers Association and as a member of the board of directors and the board of governors of the National Pawnbrokers Association. Please feel free to e-mail your comments or tips that you would like to see included in this column to or mail them to Ric Blum, Ohio Loan Co., 3028 Salem Ave., Dayton, OH 45406.

Posted in Spring 2012.