For most carjackers, the quickest way into a car is through the window. This is certainly an effective strategy for gaining access, but it is by no means the only one.
The locking mechanisms found in vehicles are extremely well understood, meaning that with practice almost anyone can learn bypass a car lock through techniques such as jiggling, picking, wedging, using a Slim Jim, breaking the glass, or NFC cloning. While most car locks can be bypassed, there are special considerations to keep in mind that not found in traditional locks.
Alarms and lockouts can make car locks much more challenging than a padlock or door lock, but with time, even the most secure car lock can be entered.
So, join us as we look at the world of automotive lock picking and the top six methods you can use to bypass car locks.
What Locks Can You Pick?
One of the first challenges you will likely come across when trying to learn automotive lock picking is sourcing quality locks you can practice on.
It can be tempting to learn on your own car, but picking comes with a very serious risk that the lock will be damaged during its manipulation, ultimately preventing access to your car.
I had this happen just recently to an old car I’m restoring, where the locking bar snapped while picking, disabling the ignition and meaning the car now can only be started directly with a screwdriver.
Instead of running these risks, we recommend sourcing dedicated locks to practice with. eBay can be a great place to find these relatively cheaply, but your local scrap yard will often be much more affordable and gives you the opportunity to practice with installed locks.
Car Locks Structure
So far in our series on lockpicking, we’ve looked at pin tumbler locks and tubular locks, but automotive locks introduce a brand-new category of cores commonly referred to as wafer locks.
While these are most popular in car locks, they can also be found in a range of applications including most security boxes or home safes.
Wafer locks can be thought of in a similar manner to pin and tumbler locks, as the wafers block the cores shear line and prevent the core from opening.
What sets these locks apart is that the wafers are much larger than pins, which can help to increase the amount of resistance felt when picking.
What makes wafer locks rather unique is their ability to function regardless of how the key is inserted, making them ideal in low light environments, where accurately finding the keyway may be difficult.
This ease of use is arguably the main reason most wafer cores are used, as they are not particularly known for their security. Wafer locks lack any style of security pins, making them particularly vulnerable.
What Makes Car Locks Special?
In theory, picking car locks is not much more difficult than a traditional padlock. This is primarily because wafer locks can be easily opened with low-skilled attacks such as raking and jiggling.
With that said, car manufacturers design their locks with these vulnerabilities in mind and therefore have ways to combat them.
The first way lock security can be improved is by being placed under a considerable amount of spring tension. This makes tensioning the lock much more difficult and therefore limits the amount of feedback coming from the core, ultimately making the core more challenging.
It is still possible to pick a car lock with heavy tension, but it takes practice to work around the increased resistance and make sure you avoid over-tensioning the core.
Most wafer locks also come with a spring-loaded cover over the front of the lock. This is primarily to act as weatherproofing but can easily get in the way when attempting to pick.
Specialized tension tools exist that help limit this problem and increases your access to the lock, although they are not always necessary as we will see.
Finally, most car locks are built with some form of alarm or immobilization technology that can detect picking attempts. The ways these alarms work vary between cars, and modern cars are much more sensitive to attacks, but you should always try and be delicate when working with automotive locks to avoid these systems.
Jiggling Car Locks
Jiggling a lock is arguably the easiest method you can use when attacking pins/wafers of a lock, even above impressioning attacks.
This attack employs specialty jiggling keys that act as both a rake and tension tool all in one. To use one, you just need to insert the tool into the lock and rock the key back and forth while rotating the core gently.
There is an aspect of trial and error with this process as it is not always easy to find the right jiggling key for the lock you are attacking, but even a budget set of jigglers can be extremely functional against most locks.
Personally, the Sparrows Coffin Keys are my go-to set of tools although any budget collection is normally more than sufficient.
Picking Car Locks
Any lock that can be defeated through jiggling is also vulnerable to raking and single pin picking attacks, but some may favor picking techniques because they offer considerably more control over the lock while picking.
This additional control comes from the use of a separate tensioning tool, which allows you to rotate the lock with one hand while picking with the other.
The added control offered by a separate tension wrench can help avoid triggering potential alarms but is often unnecessary in most cases assuming you are patient and use a delicate touch.
Looking at automotive lockpicks can be slightly intimidating if you’re coming from traditional lockpick, but their functionality is almost identical.
If you can rake or single pin pick a Master Lock, with only a little bit of practice you will be able to pick most care lock with ease.
This is largely because between a car lock or a home lock, the actual technique is extremely similar, meaning all you have to relearn is the feel and feedback associated with automotive locks.
While picking can be an extremely effective method of attacking car locks, it is personally not a technique I reach for often.
This isn’t because lock picking isn’t a valuable skill, but rather with so many other vulnerabilities present in cars, it is often not necessary to rely on such a high-skill attack when jiggling or shimming attacks are so effective.
Wedging Car Doors
Another approach we can often use takes advantage of many of the safety features present in most modern cars.
One example of these features includes the ability to open a locked door from the inside, which often allows the car to be unlocked if the car door can be shimmed open just enough for a tool to be inserted.
There are various ways you can achieve this, but the most practical is using an air wedge. This small plastic bag can be inserted in between the top of the car’s door and its body before it is inflated to create a gap in the door to access the interior.
Once you’ve got access through this gap, there are several strategies you can attempt depending on the style lock you have.
Some cars will automatically unlock the car door when the interior handle is pulled so an unlock can be caused with only a stiff piece of bent metal hooked underneath the door handle.
Alternatively, an unlock may be caused by manipulating the locking tab found in almost every car. How you attack this tab depends entirely on when the car was made, as there are two general styles you may find.
The first style of tab is typically found in older vehicles, which have the locking indicator positioned vertically in clear view of the window. These are the easiest style to manipulate, especially if you are able to use a flexible grabber to reach in and articular the tab.
The second style of these tabs position them much closer to the door handle and obscured from the window, which makes them extremely difficult to manipulate.
Their position near the door handle means they are attacked in a very similar manner, such as extending a strong metal wire down to the locking indicator to cause an unlock.
AirWedges can be sourced from various online retailers, as well as most hardware stores, for less than $20 making them an excellent tool to keep with your lockpicking set.
This is a particularly powerful attack because if done well, shimming the door can leave very little evidence to the car and almost guarantees access to a vehicle in a non-destructive manner.
I’ve personally used this method to gain access to my sister’s car after she had locked her keys in it.
Airwedges can be an excellent way access the interior locking mechanism of the car, but you may also be able to articulate a cars locking mechanism from the exterior of the vehicle.
This is done through a small gap located between the glass and door panel, typically covered by weather stripping.
In most cars you are able to insert a small piece of metal that can reach down and physically move components of the locking mechanism and cause the door to unlock.
Coat hangers do work in this role and can be used in an emergency, but almost all lockpickers go-to tool is known as a SlimJim. This very thin and flexible tool is designed to easily reach into the body of the car and hook or push the doors locking mechanism to result in an unlock.
SlimJims are extremely popular within the world of lockpicking and can be used for a range of applications outside of automotive lockpicking, such as unlocking filing cabinets or even some doorways.
If you are looking at purchasing a SlimJim, it is important to be careful to find the extended version of the tool as they are available in 5” models that are not suitable for use with cars.
Break the Glass
As a gray man, we’re normal focused on discrete ways of operating but if you need to get into a car urgently, breaking the glass may be the fastest method for you.
This is often easier said than done as the safety glass found in most cars is designed to be impact-resistant, so it is not always possible to simply smash the window with something like a rock.
Instead, you want to use something to concentrate as much force as possible on a small area, which is why glass breakers are so effective.
If you don’t want to keep a glass breaker on you, but are looking for an alternative to quickly break a car window, it is possible to make your own easily from spark plugs.
By breaking the white insulation surrounding most commercial spark plugs, you create very small ceramic chips that when thrown against side windows a car will cause it to shatter.
These tools are so effective because the ceramic of spark plugs fragments, leaving very sharp edges that can easily shatter most glass.
While this is very much a destructive method of entry, the ceramic chips can easily be carried most places with you as they generic enough to be misinterpreted as gravel, allowing you to covertly carry an incredibly effective tool around the world with you.
Our final entry method is one of the most complex to carry out, and to my knowledge, is only a theoretical attack at the moment.
As some modern cars are now installing near field communications (NFC) technology as a means to wirelessly unlock the car from your phone, they open up cars to a range of threats already seen with NFC in physical security
This technology can be found throughout the corporate world, and now consumer market, but is extremely vulnerable to having NFC signals intercepted or duplicated.
It may be possible that you are able to clone the signal used to unlock a given car and give yourself unlimited access to the vehicle. While this is not easy to accomplish, both android and iPhones offer NFC apps with cloning ability, that work flawlessly against items such as hotel keycards.
With that said, although is a vulnerability that may be used to unlock a car, it by no means is a practical one.
We’ll have a deep dive into the security of NFC coming soon, but this was included here to just highlight that even the most modern technology has vulnerabilities that people are always looking to take advantage of.
How Can you Protect your Car Locks?
Many of the techniques covered here can be applied to almost any car you run across, so how do you defend against these kinds of attacks?
It’s an unfortunate reality that the easiest way you can defend against many automotive attacks is by investing in a more recent car. Not only does this ensure your car is loaded with the most recent security features, but also ensures the components are not worn.
Aged and worn locks are much easier to pick because their components are typically already pitted from movement caused by the original key. This reduces the friction you feel when raking or jiggling, making it much easier for the wafers to fall into position and cause an unlock.
If you want the added security benefits of a new car but without the price tag, at the very least, look at replacing perishable components such as your door and weather sealings.
As these plastic components degrade over time, they break away giving better access to a range of tools from SlimJims to magnetic grabbers.
Finally, there are the obvious methods you can use to protect against automotive attacks, such as:
- Parking in areas with a lot of light. Most attacks require a fair amount of time to carry out and good lighting increases the risk an attacker is interrupted.
- Not making your car a target by leaving valuables in the open.
- Investing in a car alarm/camera system, as many new cameras have detectors that will automatically start recording if your car is being tampered with.
- Always physically verifying your door Is locked, instead of relying on if you thought you heard the chirp of your car.
While cars have several vulnerabilities, with careful situational awareness and planning it is possible to significantly reduce the risk you and your vehicle faces.
Whether your locked out of your car or looking for your next car after the fall of society, knowing how to pick automotive locks is an extremely valuable skill to have.
Practicing your attacks can be difficult, but if you’re able to find a good scrap yard then it is well worth investing some time to develop yet another skill you can add to your lockpicking toolset.
Even in the even you never need to pick your own car, by understanding how locks work, we are able to better defend against their attacks and keep our possessions safe.