Breaking Into Cars

Carrie (one of my summer housemates) locked herself out of her car earlier this week. She gave Justin and I a call, asking us to contact a local locksmith. Rather than go to the expense of calling a locksmith after hours, we offered to try to break in first.

I'd never tried, or really thought about, breaking into a car before. I don't drive my car very often, and I don't tend to leave my keys behind, so it had never really occurred to me that I might need to know how, but here was a chance to find out. We stopped by the house, picked up a wire coat hanger and a pair of wire cutters, and drove out to the store she had parked in front of. "Thank goodness you're here," she exclaimed, and showed us her key-containing purse, neatly tucked away on the back seat.

I unbent the coat hanger and snipped off the twisted end. The door locks were the pull-type, small vertical posts that, in their locked state, remained safely recessed within the door body. There was no chance of extracting them from above, barring the use of strong adhesives, but I imagined that it might be possible to catch whatever locking mechanism connected those posts to the door lock by inserting a hooked wire into the door body at the midline window seal. Then Carrie offered that she had power locks.

"Oh!" We stood up to examine the door body from the top of the passenger-side window. Indeed, a three-way rocker button was situated, out of passing view, in the door's armrest. Even better, the button faced up--it would only be necessary to depress it to open the lock. I inserted the coat hanger into the weatherstripping at the top of the door, where it met the metal just above the window. It slid easily through and down to the seat, but I couldn't direct it back towards the door frame. Removing the wire and making a quick bend rectified that situation, and I pressed the button easily.

All in all, the process took about 3 minutes and caused no visible damage. Now that I know what to do and where to look, I could unlock a similar vehicle in perhaps as little as 15 seconds. Whoah! I always thought it would take a lot of time to break into a car--at least five minutes--so somebody would notice what you were doing. Or if you did it fast, you'd need to break a window or do something else noticeably violent. Yet this was fast, easy, and nobody asked us any questions. It would be harder to steal a bicycle. Suffice it to say, I'm not trusting my valuables to any car that might be a target from now on.

With that experience in mind, here's what I plan to look for (or modify) when I buy a new car. (If you are a car designer, please take note!)

Doors
  1. I haven't tested any other vehicles, but some cars may not let you insert a coat hanger through the door at all. Try the weatherstripping at the glass, at the metal, and at the door gap.
Physical locking mechanisms
  1. Physical locks should offer as little mechanical purchase as possible. The post-type is hard to open with this method because it is smooth and has no corners to pull on.
  2. Locks should take some force to open. It's hard to apply a lot of force through a wire, except when pulling forward or upward.
  3. If the lock offers something to pull on, it should not pull up or forward. In to and away from the door are the hardest directions to manipulate with something going through the weatherstripping.
  4. A physical lock should be hard to see from outside the vehicle. That makes it more difficult to aim attempts to open it.
Power locks
  1. If the vehicle has power locks, under no circumstances should they offer buttons that press down! Pushing in towards the door or pulling out towards the chair is probably the safest.
  2. If there are buttons, they most definitely should not be concave! This particular switch had a convex lock and a concave unlock surface: merely touching the lock directs the wire right on target. A convex surface is harder to press, but likely not impossible.

Of course, no vehicle is immune to lock-picking or POWS (plain-old-window-smashing), so your best bet is always to bring your valuable items with you, and keep any existing items hidden. If your car isn't as much of a target, it dramatically enhances the ability of your security measures to do their job. :-)

Stay safe!

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