Are you giving burglars the key to your home?

By Paul Michael on 18 September 2007 15 comments
Photo: Keypad code

I’m lucky enough to know, both personally and through friends, some very nice guys in the local police departments. So when they reveal methods of criminals, I am all ears. This time, it was a jailed burglar who gave up the goods on how he committed garage door burglaries.

Like most people with a garage door, I had the garage door keypad fitted. It seemed like a handy thing to have and I’ve used it countless times. With almost 10,000 possible combinations, I felt that it was a safe bet and no burglar would take the time to crack that code. But that safety is a façade. My contact in the Aurora Police Department, here in Colorado, recounted his conversation with the crook.

“He explained that skin, particularly fingertips, emit oils on the keypads when the code is punched in; e.g. 1-4-5-6. He said that other keys on the pads that are never used become dirty with wind, rain and dust. Using a flashlight with a blue or red lens, or even using angles in daylight hours, you can see where the 1-4-5-6 numbers appear clean and/or shiny with use.

Once he could determine the four most used or clean numbers he could “crack” the code in a few minutes or less, leaving no signs of forced entry.”

That’s how simple, and quick, it really is. And how this burglar ripped off many homes. I looked at my own key pad and sure enough, it didn’t take me long to figure out the four digits I use.

But the story doesn’t end there. If the garage doesn't have a keypad, another way to get in is by using a hook to reach up over the garage door and grab the emergency release rope. Just as quick and simple, a household wire hanger will do that job very nicely.

So, what can you do?
When it comes to the emergency rope, remove it. I did a long time ago as I’d heard about this from a neighbor. Just leave a hook handy inside the garage somewhere that you can use to release the door in an emergency.

As for the keypad, well, if you’re really freaked out just remove it. It’s a little inconvenient but if peace of mind is more important to you then you’ll learn to live without it.

If you must keep your keypad, all I can think of is to clean the keys weekly with some good degreaser and cleanser. Maybe something like orange clean. That should at least stop the clues from showing.

And one more nugget of information before you run off and start scrubbing. If you’re a fan of any kind of show like C.S.I. then you may be interested to know that the fingerprint lab finds it extremely difficult to lift prints from these keypads. It’s something to do with the surface condition and texture. So, not only may you be cleaned out, the criminal could leave no trace.

However, if you follow the advice in this article you will hopefully never have to deal with that eventuality. Stay safe folks.

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15 discussions

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Guest's picture

Our garage, although attached to the house, does not have a door that leads inside.

Guest's picture

It also wouldn't be too hard to routinely press all of the keys when entering, as long as you garage door doesn't have some funky lock out mechanism for unwanted key presses. Enter you actual code, then press all the other keys for good measure. Everything is oily, everything is worn.

Guest's picture

A lot of people use keypads for their cars, too. A way to make it a little harder for burglars is to repeat one of the digits.

Guest's picture

Wow, I never really thought about the keypad on the garage as being so easy to crack. Thanks for the great tips.

Guest's picture

With 4 numbers, that's still alot of combinations, they must be standing around awhile before they get lucky.

Paul Michael's picture

When you know the exact numbers you're dealing with, there are not many variations. I'm no math whiz but it's probably between 20 and 30 different ways (help me out math bods). If you entered one code every 3 seconds, that would still take less than 2 minutes. Not very long at all. 

Guest's picture

You can also punch in all the numbers you don't use before the ones you do and wear them down as well.

Guest's picture

If you make it a habit change the code every 3 months or so, the numbers will wear evenly.

Guest's picture

All of which is why I use double cylinder dead bolt locks on the entire house, particularly the door from the garage. I also pin the hinge on one of the doors--the locked dead bolt on one side and the pinned hinge on the other makes the door impossible to remove from the frame.

To pin a hinge, remove one screw from the hinge plate (door or frame side, it doesn't matter). Replace with an extra long screw (pilot drill a hole to keep from splitting the wood). On the screw hole directly opposite this new longer screw, remove the screw entirely.

The next requires a bit of trial and error. Back the long screw out until it engages in the empty hole on the opposite side. It may take grinding the head of the long screw a bit. It may also take a bit of grinding at the hinge metal around the empty hole to get a smooth operating fit.

Don't forget, btw, to replace dead bolt strike plate and door side screws with extra long screws as well. This is particularly important in the garage, where a burglar could work on the door behind the closed garage door for some long time without interruption.

Guest's picture

A little math to show what's going on. (Assuming the combination is 4 digits)

If the burgler knows the four numbers (based on the wear/oil) but not the order ... there are only 24 possible combinations.

If you want to be tricky and repeat a number, so that there are only three worn/oily numbers, you're actually helping the burgler by decreasing the number of possible combinations to 18.

Now, if you remove the ability to tell which keys are part of the combination (clean them or wear them all down) ... you leave the burgler with 10,000 possible combinations.

As you can see, just knowing what keys to use dramatically reduces the number of possible combinations for the burgler to try.

Paul Michael's picture

Great safety tips, and great math. I knew the combinations were dramatically reduced when you know the numbers. I also thought repeating a number would not help at all, so I'm glad you helped resolve that one.

Guest's picture

Paul - isn't the emergency rope on the INSIDE of the garage? How would a guy standing outside manage to pull it?

Paul Michael's picture

a wire up over the top of the garage, in the gap between the garage door and the wall. Make sense?

Guest's picture

I still think repeating a digit is a good idea because then the burglar doesn't know how many digits are in the code. If you have oil on 4 digits but you're code is actually 5 digits, the burglar will never know that.

Guest's picture

I have a great solution to securing your home during the dark evenings. Automatic curtain closure systems. It's basically an electronic timer switch linked to a motor, so curtains will automatically close at a pre-defined tine. Search for silent gliss products in google or view