Never buy a combi-lock! Always use one with a key!
Normally, I do not advocate for things on this column for reasons that I usually keep my thoughts and stories as neutral and interesting as possible. But this column should force many of us to think of which lock one should buy if we want to protect our property from theft or vandalism.
A couple weeks ago, my wife and I were moving from one end of town to another, and I had the dubious task of moving boxes upon boxes of our personal belongings rarely needed for the apartment from our old basement to the new one. I had bought a Burg and Waechter combination lock a couple weeks earlier- one similar to the picture above, with four digits where you can set your own combination to open the padlock. It had worked for several times until one Saturday, when I went down to open the lock, only to find that despite lining up the combination numbers on the line to open it, the padlock would not open. I tried to open it up several times only to end up doing it in vain. The same applied when my wife and a couple other guests helping out with the move tried.
After about an hour working on the lock, we decided to give up and investigate the underlying causes of this problem. We started with access to the internet and the keyword Burg and Waechter combination locks and found our answer- our combi- lock was picked, when we were not even around! While there is a one in 10,000 chance of matching the combination set by the proprietor of the padlock, by clicking in the links above, one will see how easy picking a Burg and Waechter combi-lock really is and how frustrating it is, for once a person sets the combination in place, it is nearly impossible to reset it after it was picked!
This led to me being curious about the other combination locks that are out there, for we had had a Master combination lock for the basement of our old apartment, the typical three- number combination set lock where it requires turning to the right for the first number, left for the second number and right for the third and final number before unlocking it- all between 0 and 39.
While the the lock was very effective and there were no attempts of theft or vandalism of our belongings in the basement that we knew about, Master locks are also not safe for use, for there is a one in 64,000 chance that the combination would be figured out and the goods kept in a safe place would disappear before the police can intercept the thief. There are two ways of getting the combination from the proprietor- over the shoulder or by cracking it. Looking over the shoulder is effective if the person owning the lock is dumb enough to give the combination away! While one would be insane enough to just say the combination, all it would take is a person NOT putting the hand over the combination and thus having someone look over the shoulder or even record it on the iPhone or any cell phone to do the trick. But even if people do put their hand over the padlock to keep the combination under wraps, there is the intelligent way of cracking the code, which could be done in 10-15 minutes and requires some mathematics. If the person is not up to numbers and equations, there is always a shim to use if the lock is to be opened in less time. Just insert it into the shackle, wiggle, and whalaa! While shims can be a blessing and a curse all on a silver platter, pending on if one is a thief or the owner of the padlock, I learned that Master locks are perhaps the most vulnerable of the padlocks in the market, as they can be easily picked by anyone regardless of their expertise in breaking into one’s property.
So what is the alternative? The last one is the padlock with a key. There are many brands of padlocks that can be chosen from. While Master also offers these assortments, Medeco offers fancy locks with keys, even though they are perhaps the most expensive of the locks in general. Also popular internationally is Abus, which offers all sorts of locks with keys- not just padlocks but also those for bicycles. The last one is based here in Germany in Wetter (Ruhr), located near Hagen in North Rhine Westphalia. But like the aforementioned padlocks, these types are also vulnerable to being picked, despite the security features on them. For an Abus lock, all it takes is a wave-jiggler or even a thin piece of metal to stick in and turn the lock. Even the Medeco locks are prone to being picked, despite its high security features. One needs a little bit of time and dedication in order to get the job done.
In the end, despite all of the benefits and drawbacks, the decision was made to forego the combination locks in favor of the padlock with the key, and with the Abus logo on there. Even though the danger is there to pick it with the necessary tools, we saw that other lots in the basement also had the same locks on there, and for a good reason. When an apartment block has a lot of teenagers living there, they can get into a lot of mischief, as a group of kids did, by changing the combination on the Burg Waechter lock as a practical joke. That was definitely not a laughing matter, for if caught, legal action can be taken by those affected by the (attempted) burglary.
This brings me to the closing of the column on padlocks with a series of advices that should be taken when it comes to padlocks and protecting personal items from theft and vandalism, regardless of whether you are storing items at a train station during a short stay in a town or if you are walking the halls of the university enroute to your classes or even if you have a house with a basement. Some are reminders but others should be an enlightenment for you:
1. Never keep your valuables in a place requiring a lock. Always keep them with you so you know where they are at at all times. That means do not leave your books and other items that you use often in a basement, but find a place in the apartment for them where you can see them at all times.
2. If you are at the university, always take your laptop and today’s materials with you that you will DEFINITELY use at all times. Do not check out library books and leave them in a locker, but do that before going home. Home is the best place for your items, whereas the lockers are meant for your jackets and hats only- but even then, they are not safe either….
3. If an institution has lockers, please check what type of lockers are available. Many places have lockers where you just need to deposit a coin or two and you can store your belongings and lock them with the key provided. They are perhaps one of the safest lockers to have. Always keep your key with you until you leave the place.
4. The basement should be used for storing items that you do not need that often, like holiday things, etc. The reason for that is the basement is the most vulnerable room in the apartment or house. If a thief wants to break into the basement, he would do it because of something valuable he wants. You do not want that; you want to discourage him from doing that, so keep something that is worthless down there, so that in the end, you can “mothball” him and force him to look for another place to break in.
5. When choosing a lock, ALWAYS find the safest one to use (and of course the most practical to suit your needs). It is better to spend more for a safe lock than to spend on lost personal items taken in a burglary.
6. If you have a lot in the basement of an apartment complex, check who else is living there and the locks they are using. Always conform to the locks used as there is a reason for locks being picked in the first place.
7. Make sure you know the policies of the place where you are storing your belongings and know who to contact in case your items are stolen. Normally there are regulations as to how long you can store your belongings, while at the same time take the best course of action in case something happens to your belongings, however,….
8. You are responsible for your items that you store in places requiring locks. Many places are not liable for lost items so please be very careful as to what items to store and how you store them.
9. Always have a padlock breaker with you or any device (like a shim) you can use to break open the lock in case if it is picked. Locksmiths can be very spendy and based on our experience, it is cheaper to invest in something to break open yourself and keep the tools with you for future use.
10. Always have a support group to ensure that nothing happens to you and your belongings and that of others. Neighborhood watch groups are very common in the US and in some places in Germany where the population is very dense and are highly affected by crime. And lastly, report any stolen items to the police right away and know what exactly was taken.
By taking these important measures, you will feel safer and your belongings will be better protected against theft and vandalism, as there are a lot of people who want to exert his/her pleasure in doing harm to others. Stealing one’s important goods or destroying property are two classic examples of doing just that, hurting others. Even if changing the combination on the padlock was a prank, like it was the case with our padlock, it is not funny. Therefore we must take measures to ensure that we feel safe as well as our personal belongings that we value the most. The last thing that can happen to a person is to have is to have one’s padlock picked, to have the items stolen and to throw the whole schedule of the day into limbo.
As the apartment complex has no electronic locks where we are issued a combination for use, let alone inform the police of a possible break-in (like we have in the US), we now know which padlock is the best against any pickers. And apart from knowing which items to be stored in the basement, we do have a back-up plan should another picking attempt take place while we are away, even though we hope it will not come down to this…..