How safecracking works

How safecracking works

We have all seen how safecracking works in movies such as Ocean’s Eleven and The Italian Job. The suave, sophisticated and often sexy safecracker puts his ear up close to the safe, turns the dial, and listens carefully for a couple of almost inaudible clicks. Then, within a matter of seconds, and with a gleam in his eye, he smoothly and easily turns the handle. The door of the safe glides open, revealing a fortune in cash and jewels.

As romantic and thrilling as it may seem in the movies, in reality, safecracking can be either much easier or much more difficult than it appears onscreen. Why is it important for you as a consumer to understand how safecracking works? It is extremely important because an understanding of the methods a safecracker will use to gain entrance to your valuable belongings will make it easier for you to protect yourself from such a catastrophe.


First of all, most expert safecrackers do not actually crack a safe. They know that the easiest way to break into a safe is to know a lot about the safety they want to open. There are many different types of safes, built for a variety of situations. So, the first thing a safecracker will do is to find out what type of safe he is up against.

Some safes are designed to protect objects from fire. Fire safes are constructed using materials that will withstand a great deal of intense heat. These types of safes are used, for example, by trust attorneys, who keep their clients’ wills in such safes. This way, if there is a fire in the building, these important original documents will be kept safe and intact. While fire safes will protect important documents and things from damage during a fire, they are not necessarily designed for security purposes. Accordingly, these safes are generally very easy to break into.

Other safes are designed for security purposes, to prevent the removal of important or valuable items from the safe. Unlike a fire safe, these safes may virtually melt under intense heat. In fact, because they are made of heavy-duty steel or other materials designed to prevent access, such a safe will generally heat to an extremely high temperature and may even combust during a fire. But, because security safes operate under a combination lock system, they are extremely difficult to crack open . . . unless, of course, you are an expert safecracker.

So, in order to protect your belongings from unwelcome intruders, it is important to buy a safe that is designed to meet your needs. Do not expect a fireproof safe to protect your valuables from burglars. On the other hand, a safe designed to safeguard your belongings from theft may not provide protection in the event of a fire or other disaster. Purchase a safe that suits your purposes and that is designed in accordance with current technological standards. That antique safe your grandfather left you may be beautiful, but it will probably not withstand a safecracking attempt using today’s advanced safecracking methods.


A safecracker uses a variety of methods to gain entrance to a safe. He will first try to use the method that is going to be the easiest. Surprisingly, the easiest and most common way a safecracker gains entrance into a safe is by knowing the combination. When you purchase a safe or any kind of combination locking device, it comes from the factory with a preset combination.

The idea is that the purchaser will then reset the combination to a unique combination of his or her own choosing. Unfortunately, many consumers do not reset the combination but continue to use the one provided by the factory, thinking that it is perhaps a unique and/or randomly-generated combination. What most consumers do not realize is that the preset factory combinations are an industry standard.

There are a limited number of these preset combinations used by the industry and by different manufacturers. An expert safecracker makes it his business to know what those combinations are and if he knows the manufacturer of the safe, will first try the preset combination(s) used by that manufacturer to easily gain access to the safe. From a consumer standpoint, it is therefore important to change the preset combination to one of your own choosing immediately after the purchase of a new safe.


Assuming you have been a smart consumer and changed the preset combination on your safe to a unique combination of your own, the next easiest way a safecracker breaks into a safe is to deduce the combination. This, too, is easier than you might think. Surprisingly, many people keep the combination written down in very close proximity to the safe itself. With a little snooping, a safecracker may easily find the combination written down on a scrap of paper in your desk drawer or hidden in the pages of a book on that bookshelf right next to the safe.

Failing this, the safecracker may attempt to figure out the combination. Many people continue to use important dates, such as birthdates or anniversaries, as combinations or passwords. If the safecracker is acquainted with you or has access to information about you, it may be a simple matter to figure out the combination to your safe. In fact, it may be as simple as looking over the important dates marked on your desk calendar.

In order to protect yourself from safecracking, it is therefore important that you do three things with respect to the safe’s combination:

  • Immediately reset the preset factory combination to a unique combination of your own;
  • Use a combination of numbers that is random and meaningless and, therefore, cannot be easily figured out by a safecracker; and
  • Store the written combination in a very secure place that is nowhere near the safe itself. For example, if the safe is at your office, keep the combination in a secure location at home, and vice versa. If you write the combination down on a slip of paper, make sure you do not identify it as a Combination To Safe or anything so careless as that.
  • Perhaps write it into an address book under a fake listing, and write it out as if it were a telephone number or e-mail address. You might choose to keep the combination in a safe deposit box at your bank. Or, consider keeping the combination stored in a saved e-mail in your private e-mail account, so that only you have access to it. Of course, make sure the password to your e-mail account is a random combination of numbers and letters known only to you.


Let’s assume that you have taken every precaution to create a unique and insignificant combination and hide it well away from the location of the safe itself. You have now made it impossible for a safecracker to gain entrance to your safe, right? Well, no. But you have made it much more challenging.

Now, the safecracker will be forced to use real safecracking techniques to gain entrance to your safe. This is the part where the safecracker puts his ear up to the safe and listens for clicks that will give him clues to the safe’s combination. This process is called manipulation, and it is far more difficult and time-consuming than it appears to be in the movies. In all likelihood, the safecracker will not even try this method and will move on to an easier target. But, if the safecracker is determined to break into your safe, there are some things you should know that may protect you and your belongings.

In the movies, the safecracker puts his ear up to the safe and slowly turns the dial, seemingly listening for the click of the lock as it hits the right number on the dial. He then turns the dial slowly in the other direction to listen for the next click. Two or three clicks and he turns the handle on the safe and easily opens the door. The entire process takes no more than a breath-holding, seat-clenching minute or two. It is very dramatic and exciting, but this is not how it actually works.

The first thing to understand about combination locks is that each number in the combination corresponds to a notched wheel inside the lock itself. Each notch corresponds to a number in the combination. The lock consists of a simple system of gears, notches, and levers that slide and line up. Simply put, when the right combination numbers are dialed in for each wheel, the notches on each wheel line up and form a gap through which the lock’s bolt may slide, allowing the door of the safe to open.

To figure out one number in a combination, a safecracker has to dial the lock and listen for the click that tells him that he has hit either side of the notch on the wheel. This does not tell him the actual number, however, only an area on the dial or a range of numbers corresponding to the width of the notch. So, the safecracker has to repeat the process over and over again, graphing the locations of the clicks on a chart and using a range of numbers corresponding to the width of the notch. He will then gradually begin to see a pattern develop on the graph that will clue him in to the range of numbers in which the number of the combination falls. This process requires a good ear, a great deal of knowledge regarding mathematical probabilities and ratios, and a lot of patience.

How is this information useful to you as a consumer? Simply put, the more numbers your combination uses, the more difficult and time-consuming it will be for the safecracker to deduce your combination this way. The safecracker has to repeat the above process over and over again for each wheel in order to ascertain each number of the combination. If several numbers and, therefore, several wheels are involved, this process could take hours. A safecracker generally does not have that kind of time.

Additionally, while the graphing process will eventually allow the safecracker to deduce the numbers in the combination, it will not reveal the order of the numbers. Accordingly, the safecracker will have to try each and every possible combination of numbers in order to find the right combination. If the safe has a three-number combination, for example, there are only six possible combinations of those numbers.

Safes with combinations of up to three numbers are therefore much easier to break into than safes that use a combination of four, five or six numbers. In fact, statistically, a combination lock with a six-number combination is 500 times as secure as two three-number combination locks would be. So, make sure your safe has a combination lock that uses a combination of more than three numbers, preferably six numbers, so that it is difficult for even an expert safecracker to figure out.


When all else fails, a safecracker will attempt to break into your safe using force. Your task as a consumer is to make this as difficult as possible. The first thing a safecracker may do is try to remove the safe from its location and take it somewhere else, so that the safecracker has plenty of time to dismantle the safe without the threat of being caught in the act. To prevent this, you may choose a safe that is set into the wall or floor, or you may have the safe affixed to the wall or floor using bolts.

To gain entrance into the safe, the safecracker may drill into the lock itself. He can then use an object to go through the drilled hole and push the pins and levers aside, allowing the bolt of the lock to slide freely so that the door of the safe can be opened. This is not a preferred method of safecracking among professional safecrackers for several reasons. First of all, it is relatively noisy, and the goal of a safecracker is to be as fast and as quiet as possible in order to remain undetected.

And, again, it is not as easy as it looks. As a consumer, your job is to make this even more difficult for the safecracker. The way you do this is to purchase a safe that uses heavy duty materials to protect the lock, such as cobalt plates, which are difficult or impossible to drill through. Some safes also have relocking devices which are triggered when a safecracker attempts to drill into the safe. This will relock the safe so that it cannot be opened, even using the correct combination.

The most persistent safecrackers may use even more drastic measures to get into a safe. They may torch a hole into the side of the safe and gain access to the safe’s contents that way. They may use nitroglycerin or other explosives to blow the door off of the safe. Today’s high-tech safecrackers may even resort to advanced methods such as computer hacking or the use of software designed to run number sequences in order to deduce electronic lock combinations.


Once you have purchased the perfect safe for your purposes, bolted it to the floor, created the perfect six-number combination and hidden the combination in a safe location well away from prying eyes, there are other things you must do on a continual basis in order to keep your safe burglar-proof.

First, change the combination frequently to make it even more difficult for someone to obtain or figure out the combination. Next, be sure never to open the safe unless you are alone and protected from the possibility of intruders. Finally, after opening the safe, close it firmly each and every time. Then, completely reset the lock by deliberately dialing it several times. Many people do not turn the dial after closing the safe, or turn it only slightly or haphazardly, which makes it possible for the safe to be opened by dialing in only the last number of the combination.

If protecting your property is worth the investment of purchasing a safe, then it is also worth the investment of time necessary to allow the safe to properly do its job. Armed with a little knowledge about how safecracking works, you can use the safecracker’s own methods against him to outsmart him and to thwart even the most high-tech safecracking attempt.

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