One of Harry Houdini’s secrets was that he understood safes were designed to thwart people who wanted to break into them, not out of them. From that simple fact, a great career was born.
I thought of Houdini — the escapologist, the “Handcuff King” — when I heard from Washington reader Bert Bartlett. Bert had been flipping through the D.C. Yellow Pages when he came across the “Locksmiths” section and the names and phone numbers of more than 450 locksmiths.
“I shudder to think there are that many people out there fully qualified to break into my house!” Bert wrote. “What’s the deal?”
The deal is, we live in a world built on trust. Sometimes that trust must be enhanced by regulations. Even so, some people will abuse that trust.
When it comes to locksmiths, certain protections are in place. Eleven states require locksmiths to be licensed. So do some cities: New York, for example. This typically includes a criminal background check. Virginia started requiring licenses — and background checks — in 2008. Maryland passed similar legislation in 2010 but because of budget restraints has yet to implement it. D.C. locksmiths need a general business license but are not required to have a background check.
Locksmiths who belong to the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA), a Dallas-based professional organization with 6,000 members, are subject to a background check. There is also a 12-point code of ethics that requires members to, among other things, “refrain from using their professional skills, training, or expertise in a manner that compromises the safety or security of the customer or the general public.”
Said Mary May, the group’s interim executive director: “Once we’re notified of one of them doing something against the law or unethical, we kick them out.”
Of course, ethics are what you might call voluntary. Just as we occasionally hear of a police officer who pilfered from the evidence room, so, too, locksmiths occasionally go bad. The locksmith world has been abuzz recently with the case of Eric Welch of Coconut Creek, Fla., who was arrested last month after allegedly planting secret access codes in the locks of safes he serviced at places like fast-food restaurants and sports bars. Police nabbed him behind a Home Depot, where he was opening a cash-filled safe in a van used to transport money to ATMs.
Welch had been a locksmith for nearly two decades.
“If you look at the nature of this industry, we have to be above reproach,” said Jim Hancock, director of education at ALOA. “Based on our ability to get into places without anyone knowing, we have to have an ethical standard higher than any other industry out there.”
The online message forums of ALOA and its sister organization, the Safe and Vault Technicians Association, remind members not to spill secrets. Some forums are open only to members.
Jim said that in states that require licensing, manufacturers of lock-picking tools sell only to bona fide locksmiths. But he added, “The sad thing is a lot of places that sell tools over the Internet, they don’t ask you a lot of anything.”
The same thing applies to the skill of lockpicking. Jim said there once was a “mystique” to locksmithing. The Internet has demystified that. There are thousands of videos on YouTube that explain how to pick locks.
In other words, it may not be a bad locksmith you have to worry about, but a bored teenager with a laptop, a broadband connection and a desire to do mischief.
“There’s not a ton of secrecy out there,” Jim said. (He also stressed that good locksmiths have a high skill level unmatched by dabblers.)
But here’s something that surprised me: When you talk to locksmiths about the Yellow Pages, they aren’t too worried that 450 locksmiths know how to get into your house. They’re more worried that many of those who advertise — maybe even most — aren’t locksmiths at all, or at least aren’t ones you’d want coming to your house or to your car. They are perpetrators of what’s called the locksmith scam.
And as for what that is, you’ll have to tune into tomorrow’s column.
To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.