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Can a safe lock be bypassed – How to “pick” a safe lock!

Safes store some of our most prized possessions, but can they truly be trusted as part of your security system? Let’s find out as we answer how easily a safe's lock can be bypassed.
safe

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For most of us, safes act as our last line of defense. If someone has already broken into our home or room, we rely on a safe to be the final challenge standing between them and our valuables.

While many of us trust in the quality of our safe, like almost all other locks on the market they are not without their vulnerabilities.  This leaves safes open to a range of attacks including picking, bumping, and even extremely advanced digital attacks.

So, join us as we break open the secrets of safes and answer whether a safe can be cracked?

What Types of Safe Exist?

Safes come in all shapes and sizes and understanding exactly how they operate is key to understanding whether they can by bypassed.

Fortunately, while their physical appearance can differ almost to an unlimited extent, the actual mechanism responsible for their security can be broadly broken down into four categories. 

The first and arguably most iconic style of safe, can be found with combination safes which use a series of drive wheels and gates to block the safe’s locking bar from moving. 

As each wheel is rotated into the correct position, the gates are free to align within the safe allowing an internal lever to fall into its open position and the locking bar to be retracted.

In contrast, digital locks are much less iconic but make up the vast majority of locks on the market right now. 

In these safes, the clunky analog system of dials is completely eliminated in favor of electromagnets (almost identical to the systems found in digital padlocks), which activate in response to a correct input from the user and allow the lock to open.

Inputs may come from a range of devices (including keypads, fingerprint readers, or even digital dials) and thanks to their compact size can be implemented in almost any safe size from huge bank safes to compact firearms safes.

Finally, we couldn’t talk about lock picking without talking about the traditional keyed lock. 

While a key is typically used as the primary locking mechanism in fireproof safes, it is not uncommon to find a master key included in most commercial safes as a backup method of entry.

Keyed safes highlight an interesting quirk of safes compared to other devices, as most will often include at least one secondary method of entry. 

Just a quick look on Amazon and the first page offers multiple safes with a digital passcode, fingerprint reader and master key.

While these systems may seem more convenient at first, they wrap all of the potential vulnerabilities different lock styles may have into a convenient package, truly making it a lockpickers playground.

As with all locks, the kind of mechanism we are attacking is directly related to the types of attacks available to us so it is often better to invest in a single quality locking mechanism you can trust, than several cheaper styles that are surely prone to fail.

With that said, let’s get into the details to understand exactly how a safe may be attacked and see how we can better defend against unwanted third parties.

How Can Safes Be Attacked?

As with all other locks we’ve previously discussed on the site, such as traditional padlocks and digital locks, there is not one single method of attacking a safe.  Instead, there is a wide collection of attacks that will have varying levels of success based on the type of safe you are attacking.

Combination Attacks

Starting with perhaps the most well-known attacks, it is entirely possible to open a safe by deducing its combination. This is considerably easier with combination-dial safes; however, the signs of wear present of digital keypads can also make it possible when attacking more modern safes.

The simplest way to achieve this is through listening to the lever as it falls into gates, eventually producing an unlock. With that said, simple auditory cues can be made almost completely useless through false gates.

Instead, most professional safe crackers and locksmiths will typically attempt to drill the safe in order to visually inspect the dials and generate a working code.  This is by no means covert, but for those willing to simply steal a safe and open it later, is one of the most effective methods out there.

Finally, when it comes to cracking a combination, there is always the possibility of brute forcing a system and trying every combination possible. 

This is less viable on digital safes, as they will often include some form of lockout mechanism or alarm, but for those with the time and patients, trying all 1000000+ combinations will eventually produce an unlock.

Fortunately, trying all of these combinations is often much easier than it actually sounds. 

Most combination safes will often have relatively low build tolerances, leaving each gate wider than it needs to be. This means to a safe, a combination of 29-46-89 is almost indistinguishable from that of 31-44-87, cutting the combinations you need to try down dramatically. 

Even with low tolerances, it is still an incredibly time-consuming method of attack, so much so that specialty robots have actually been designed to burn through combinations at an inhuman rate in order to produce an unlock in around 8 to 10 hours. 

Although traditional safe cracking is less common in modern lockpicking circles, primarily due to the rise of digital safes, practice is relatively easy thanks to tools such as the Sparrows Challenge Vault.

Attacking the Electronics

Moving onto digital safes, beyond simply guessing the correct combination, they are prone to the same manipulation as their padlock counterparts, primarily through the use of strong electromagnets. 

Finding the sweet spot on these safes can be difficult due to their much bigger size, however, with just a small amount of patience, most safes can be open for only the low price of a neodymium magnet.

When magnets fail, a great alternative attack that will work with most safes can be to simply reset the passcode and enter your own combination to gain entry.

One of the biggest challenges of this method is typically accessing the passcode reset switch, however assuming a safe has not been mounted, it is incredibly easy to reach through the rear mounting holes with a small wire and access any buttons necessary.

Certain safes, such as the Sentry Safe X055 completely eliminate the need to reset the password in this attack by having holes directly open to the electronics of the device, allowing for the internal mechanism to be manipulated without a trace.

If all else fails, it may be possible to completely bypass the electronics entirely.

One of the best examples of this that works incredibly well if you are not concerned about the amount of noise you are making is to simply drop the safe while applying a rotational force to the handle or dial. 

Drop attacks may not be suitable in all cases, but with smaller and cheaper safes, the inertia of a sudden impact can carry over to the internal locking mechanism, disengaging the bolt or lever and unlocking the safe in a matter of seconds.

Attacking the Core

The last covert method worth discussing, and arguably one of the first ones to try, is the tried-and-true method of lock picking.

While not all safes will include a keyway, most consumer units will typically include some form of a master key in the event a battery fails, or the combination is forgotten.

Safe manufacturers often attempt to cut costs with these backup keyways by hiding them awkwardly around the safe or under logos, in an attempt to justify the use of a cheaper and therefore less secure core. 

In most cases, these will typically either be wafer locks or tubular locks that can be disabled incredibly easily either through jiggling or impressioning.  

For how covertly this attack can be carried out with minimal tooling and its ability to work with so many safes on the market right now, it is arguably the only method I have ever needed to use for years within lock sports.

Brute Force

It’s also important to note that while most safes like to claim that they are impenetrable, and some truly are deserving of that title, most commercial models can be easily defeated with sheer brute force.

For unauthorized third parties, this will often mean completely stealing a safe in order to avoid detection, but for breaking into your own safe, it can be achieved in only a few minutes.

From experience, an angle grinder is typically the most effective method of cutting through the sheet metal of a door or wall, but hole cutting drills are arguably just as effective depending on the tools available to you.

With that said, power tools are the only real way to brute force a safe into opening.

It’s not that it is impossible to do this with simple hand tools but rather that they will typically only make this process harder as instead of cutting the metal walls, instead twist and distort the walls, making the process much harder in the long run.

How to Improve a Safe’s Security?

We’ve seen how easily a safe can be defeated with the right tool set and enough determination, but how do we actually protect our safes?

The most obvious consideration is to first purchase a safe you can trust, but more importantly, is built for a dedicated purpose.

While it’s not uncommon to see people storing extremely valuable items or even firearms in a fireproof box (such as those from SentrySafe), the reality is these boxes are not built to prevent a thief. 

At the bare minimum, it is typically worth investing in a safe with at least a double wall to limit any attempts to cut through the safe, while also investing in a quality dial lock with no keyed alternative.

Once you have a quality safe picked out, it needs to be mounted on a reliable surface, with a concrete floor or wall being the best options out there. 

This significantly reduces the risks of an attacker simply removing the safe from your property, in order to have unlimited access to the safe and the freedom to attack a safe in whatever manner they choose.

A safe firmly fixed in place also helps to dramatically limit the number of attacks available (including preventing drop attacks) while also potentially making access to the safe and its locking mechanism increasingly awkward. 

Last but not least, it is important to attempt to hide your safe as much as possible. 

A master bedroom or home office are prime targets during a home invasion, so moving the safe out of these rooms into more obscure locations (such as a dark corner of the attic or storage closet) can help minimize the chance of having your safe ever attacked in the first place.

Do You Need a Safe?

A high-quality safe can be a great investment, and those who choose to keep their valuables or firearms locked away are arguably much more security conscious than your average Joe off the street.

Despite this, there are many reasons why using a safe may actually work against you and potentially harm your defenses.

The increased security threat safes pose primarily arises as they make for such an obvious target.

Where thieves have such limited time inside a property, a safe clearly indicated exactly where you store your valuable items and therefore where an attacker should focus their attention for the biggest payout.

Instead of relying on an expensive safe, most people can often get by simply by hiding their belongings in concealed locations around their house such as under floorboards, in furniture, or in old luggage.

A great alternative to safes can be found in the form of false vents or power sockets, which to even the most seasoned thief, can be difficult to differentiate these from their functional counterparts.

Hiding your belongings is by no means a perfect solution and is not the answer for situations where you need additional protection from the elements but can be a great way to protect your belongings from unwanted third parties.

Simply put, an attacker can never attack a lock if they are unable to find it.

Conclusion

Safes are a great investment in your security, however like all other locks in the world, they cannot be trusted blindly with your belongings.

Whether prying open the walls of a safe and tearing it apart or carefully picking a hidden lock core, a range of methods can be used to open a safe in a mere matter of seconds.

As with all other security equipment and locks, it is how you choose to implement a safe into your security system that truly makes a difference in keeping your property safe.

Safes make up only a tiny portion of your security, so for more information on protecting your home be sure to check out our previous discussions on the correct ways to secure a door or digital lock.

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