Ken Doyle, a professional safecracker who's been practicing his trade since 1978, explains the ins and outs of safecracking to McSweeney's Suzanne Yeagley:

Q: How often do people get locked in vaults?

A: More often than you’d think and bank PR departments would like.


Q: Do you ever look inside?

A: I NEVER look. It’s none of my business. Involving yourself in people’s private affairs can lead to being subpoenaed in a lawsuit or criminal trial. Besides, I’d prefer not knowing about a client’s drug stash, personal porn, or belly button lint collection.

When I’m done I gather my tools and walk to the truck to write my invoice. Sometimes I’m out of the room before they open it. I don’t want to be nearby if there is a booby trap.

Q: Why would there be a booby trap?

A: The safe owner intentionally uses trip mechanisms, explosives or tear gas devices to “deter” unauthorized entry into his safe. It’s pretty stupid because I have yet to see any signs warning a would-be culprit about the danger.

Over the years I’ve found several tear gas devices in safes and vaults I’ve opened. These devices were marketed with names like “BEAVER” and “BADGER.” There are safecrackers that collect them.

Interviews With People Who Have Interesting or Unusual Jobs (via Schneier)

(Image: It Is Not Often That I Find A Sealed Safe On The Footpath, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from infomatique's photostream)


    1. What he doesn’t mention is how far apart those 9k payouts are. If he only gets six calls a year that’s not a huge salary. Lots of vacation time though!

    2.  There’s also “$10 for turning the bolt, $8990 for knowing which bolt to turn.”

  1. I’m confused by the contradiction:
    “Q: Do you ever look inside?
    A: I NEVER look. It’s none of my business.”…
    “Over the years I’ve found several tear gas devices in safes and vaults I’ve opened. ”

    If you never look inside, how would you have found devices inside the opened safe/vault? Unless he meant he never looks inside during one of the “dead relative” combination recoveries.

    1. I agree, that didn’t add up to me either.  I think the answer lies in the context of the question.  “Do you ever look inside?” comes right after “another 10-20% of my income comes from law enforcement searches and seizures or estate, aka “dead relative” openings. They hire me and I drill it open, but these are not situations where I like to hang around too long.”

      So I think Doyle is saying he never looks inside in those cases.

    2. I took it to mean that some may go off anyway when he opens the door or may be on the outside.

    3. Some things you have to look at to find them, but others go out of their way to be found.  I would expect teargas traps to fall firmly into the latter category.

    4. I’d guess there’s also that, while he doesn’t go rooting around inside, he can’t help but see things while he’s making sure the work is complete.

    5.  Because there’s probably a difference in his mind about looking at the interior of the safe/vault to determine it is fully unlocked and safe and looking at the stuff that is contained within that the manufacturer did not put there.  I’m willing to bet that he keeps strictly to looking at the manufacturer’s installed equipment.

  2. You say Safecracker, I think Feynman at Los Alamos…

    Does that make me a Tamarian?

  3. Q: It seems like you could use this knowledge in bad ways if you wanted to.

    A: Clients often ask, jokingly, whether we learn our trade in prison.

    I once got locked out of my own car three times in a week (don’t ask). Fortunately for my pride, AAA sent a different tow truck every time. Total elapsed time actually spent unlocking my car: maybe 30 seconds. The last guy came up behind me while I was leaning on the hood of my car and had it unlocked before I really knew he was there. None of them tripped my alarm.

    I’m sure they were all completely honest guys, but if you can do that, I don’t see how you don’t become a car thief, like, automatically. I’d be stealing cars just so I could drive them across busy intersections instead of walking. It’s probably just as well that I don’t have skills of any kind.

    1. Mostly because crime is a high risk job, and working for AAA (or CAA or whatever) doesn’t involve cops, angry car owners with weapons for “self defense”, or organized crime.

      1.  Yup. Many people in IT have potential access to very important and highly secure information, but because we’d rather do what we’re expected to and continue to draw a paycheck rather than steal the info, cut a deal with a shady person who might just be a cop, live a life on the lam, etc., we don’t. Some people are apparently cut out to live that kind of life, most of us would rather have a somewhat challenging job and keep the high-adrenaline stuff (skiing, paintball, cycling, surfing) for the afternoon/weekend.

        1. I used to say the same thing, except for maybe the weekend part.  At some point though I decided to just boil it down and say look, I wouldn’t know what the hell to do with the stuff anyway.  My two speeding tickets in the last 15 years netted me zero organized crime contacts, and my pot-dealing brother in law’s biggest concern would  be whether or not it “works in a normal DVD player”.  Your secret is safe with me.

          Might as well shoot em straight.

          1. It’s hard enough to find a good vendor when everyone’s supposed to be following the law, I really don’t want to consider the risks for finding a good fence when everyone’s trying to Hide from the law!

            Btw, your post is hilarious, thank you :)

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