How Secure Are Combination Locks

Your ex is looking for revenge, and they might steal your personal info to get it. How much damage can they do with just social security or account numbers? You wouldn’t believe how expensive and long-lasting that sort of trouble can be. So instead of taking a serious risk, you’ve decided to lock everything up. Good move, but are you sure it’s safe?

How secure are combination locks? Combination locks, like people, can be complicated or straightforward, and like people, the simplest are easy to figure out. A combination lock without any extra features can be opened relatively quickly, with very little skill. Most people can learn to do this in about two minutes or less. So a basic cheap combination lock isn’t very secure. 

Added Security

While a basic combination lock isn’t too hard to open, even with no prior experience, there are some things you can add to make it more secure. Security features beyond what your high school locker had are always your best plan when you need to protect vital information. Moreover, an upgraded lock like the Master Lock 653D or the BRINKS 173-80051 Discus Padlock might cost a couple of dollars more than the ultra cheap varieties in the short term, but the trouble they’ll save you is priceless. Plus, they aren’t going to break the bank.

When you have a psycho stalker or a rotten roommate, you need to keep your privacy. Worse still, if your spouse is cheating or planning a divorce. Often they snoop in hopes of ruining your credibility in court, so assuring that your valuable property and information remain safe could be the only way to win. Regardless, it’s nobody’s business but yours what you choose to lock up.

False Gates

A false gate is part of the inner wheel on a combination lock. Where an actual gate is a slot (also called a hole or keyhole, but don’t get confused, there’s no key involved) in the wheel that allows a shackle to move and open the lock. A false gate gives every appearance of loosening the path so you can pull the shackle up. However, when you attempt to do so, the shackle sticks because there’s a hidden lip that holds the shackle in place. This adds an element of difficulty.

Each false gate means there are more possible combinations for a shackle to open. Even a person with lockpicking experience will be hard pressed to know the difference. It’s frustrating and time-consuming. As a result, the longer someone has to spend on a lock, the more likely they are to get caught or simply give up and fail.

More Dials

Three digits are fine when you need to keep your underwear safe at the gym. Your average high school student doesn’t need anything else to keep their math books from thieves. However, for anything important, adding layers of security is vital. Choose a padlock with more dials for a better chance of keeping a lockpicking snoop out of your personal property.

A lock like the 4-Digit FortLocks Gym Locker, for example, has an added wheel. The addition of a single number might not seem like a huge deal, but it makes guessing the combination a whole lot harder. An inexpensive and simple three number dial lock has about a thousand combinations (if it’s 0-9). Just a single extra number can multiply the difficulty tenfold, for ten thousand possible opening combos. Additionally, the more complicated a lock, the longer it takes to pick. 

How to Pick a Combination Lock (In Five Steps)

  1. Dials that are scrambled don’t allow the shackle to move. This usually is how you’ll find a combination lock, and it’s what holds them closed.
  2. Apply upward pressure. You’ll need a firm grasp to pull the shackle. Try to keep your pressure even. If the dials refuse to move at all, you should let the tension go a little. It should be simple enough with most locks to pull up on the shackle. Conversely, when the padlock is attached to a hasp and locked, you can achieve the same effect by pulling downward on the body.
  3. Maintain pressure on the lock the whole time. If you slack your grip, it may let the wheels move, and that could put you back at square one.
  4. Turn each dial one at a time. You need to move slowly. Try this from one end or the other, but it’s best not to go in a random order, especially when first learning.
  5. You should feel and hear a click and a slight upward motion on the shackle when you hit the right number. Repeat this for each number dialed, and the lock should open

*As I mentioned, locks with false gates will give the same sensation and sound. This trick only works on cheap locks with no safety features. It requires more skill and time to defeat a decent lock.

Choosing the Right Lock For Your Needs

Looking for overall protection from strangers or people you don’t know well is a bit different from when you know the probable culprit. A stranger/unknown can have any number of skill sets. They may or may not have tools like lockpicks, bolt cutters, and shims. Plus, while most people know in a general way that they can find out how to do almost anything on the internet, in reality, they don’t use the knowledge to their benefit.

Before you can pick a lock to suit your situation, you need to know what you’re looking for.

  • First, assess the situation. Decide whether you need to handle all unknown comers, like a gate lock or public gym locker. If you’re trying to keep your soon-to-be-ex-spouse out of a lockbox for a while until you separate that effects the situation.
  • Second make a list, in your head or written. Put all the things you think your lock may face on your list, and try to cover all the bases without going overboard into paranoia. If your spouse doesn’t know which end of a pair of bolt cutters to hold, then you won’t need a hardened shackle unless they’re highly likely to hire a licensed PI (or a real criminal) to break in for them.
  • Third, find a lock that suits your needs.

Some Perspective

If your potential thief is trying to be sneaky and doesn’t have much skill, then they’ll probably try to pick the lock by testing each combination. When your thief knows net to nothing about pulling on the shackle, then they could still open a four-digit lock in as little as six and a half hours. For most, it takes closer to 177 hours.

Running through all the possible combinations varies because of several factors. First, how organized are they? If it’s systematic, starting with 0000, 0001, 0002 etc, then it will only take as until they hit on your number. Second, how high is your number? (Pro Tip: don’t pick 9999, sometimes people check all the three and four digit numbers first) If it happens to be 0308 then it means less time and effort than a combination like 8739. Choose wisely if you have a lock you can set yourself. Lastly, how fast are they? Faster fingers and faster reflexes get faster results.

Go Big

If you’re dealing with a pro, then you need a better hiding place. For most situations, you won’t need to be concerned about that. Instead, choose a lock with five wheels and a hundred thousand possible digit combinations. That’s a whole lot of trial and error.  Oria makes a great five-digit combination lock for this sort of use.

Perhaps you have a lot of trouble keeping numbers in your head. There are a couple of simple solutions for that. Primarily, you don’t want to write it down. The risk of loss or theft is pretty high, mainly if your particular problem person is determined.

If you have to record it, use a trusted friend to keep your secret. Alternately, if you happen to use a Masterlock, you can also use their Password Vault. Of course, you’ll need to remember your login information there instead. This works well if you have a work computer or similar way to access the internet that your thief can’t reach.

Numberless Locks

You can also try a no-numbers approach like a Masterlock 1534D. This clever option gives you the same five dials, but you set your letter based code word. Some of us have an easier time remembering letters.

Predictably, you shouldn’t choose a word that’s easy to guess, like your name. Don’t use any personally significant word. Avoid your license plate letters and other easy answers. Either pick a random word you can remember, or use a series of letters that are complete nonsense. If you’re a great speller, pick a word you know how to spell, that can be spelled on your lock, then misspell it on purpose. 

Word locks may even help deter an inexperienced snoop. Looking at the unfamiliar may be enough to confuse and frustrate a new thief. It’s not a perfect system, but it is a convenient if minimal bonus to choosing an unusual lock.

Final Thoughts

Keeping out intruders can be so stressful, and stress can mess with your head. Try to approach your lock issues with a clear, calm mind. Hopefully, this article was able to help you answer your pressing questions about how safe your private info and property are. Sadly, any lock can be broken into if the criminal in question has enough motivation, time, and tools for the job. Still, thwarting them can be as easy as changing a lock if you know what you’re doing.


Additional Questions

What is the most secure lock in the world? There are a handful of locks that have never, or almost never, been successfully picked. None of them are padlocks, unfortunately. Examples include the HYT Chain Key, and the Shi-He Chi-Me U-lock.


Is it illegal to pick your own lock? Absolutely not. You are more than welcome to pick any lock you own. Keep in mind that if you do so dressed in black, in public and at night then the police might notice. So, you might need to prove the lock is yours.


How Secure are Smartlocks? You may have guessed this, but it depends on the lock. Realistically, there are plenty of smartlocks that pass the same security tests as a regular door lock. They’re about the same level of security as what you have now. 


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