As the mercury begins to rise, so does the crime rate nationwide. Auto theft is certainly among those warm-weather crimes of opportunity, and one that routinely spikes around this time of year. Criminals have thought of some pretty ingenious ways to steal cars and make money off of them, but one technique stands above the rest, and is one of the easiest to detect. This technique? The use of shaved keys.
Shaved keys have been around for decades, but remain one of the most popular ways to steal a car. They are the most inexpensive way to go, and can be effective on a wide variety of vehicles. In northern California, the nation's top auto theft hot spot for the last three years running, shaved keys account for nearly half of all the auto thefts in the area. That alone is reason enough for a quick refresher course on these keys and how to stop them in your city.
A shaved key looks just like it sounds, a car key that's been shaved or ground down on either the sides or the face. In the past, most keys were ground on the ridges, making them fit well into a vehicle's ignition. Recently, the trend has been to grind these keys on their faces, leaving the ridges on the sides intact. This has fooled some officers who look at the keys' intact ridges and figure they are legitimate keys. Not quite. This type of key is just as effective for any car thief, and can be used in the same way.
Shaved keys are known by other names as well, such as "master keys" or "jigglers." They work by fitting into the vehicle's ignition and fooling the ignition system into believing it's the original key. Due to the speed of these kinds of thefts, they can appear as innocent as an ordinary citizen getting into his or her car at a shopping mall. Some of the keys will also work on a vehicle's doors, making them even harder to detect. The same key can be used on hundreds of cars before wearing out, making them prized possessions for auto thieves. Shaved keys can be made easily with the aid of any metal grinder or handheld file. In fact, many criminals will simply grind the key down on the edge of a sidewalk or rock. This method is just as effective-providing they can get the key thin enough to "jiggle" into the car's ignition.
Certain types of vehicles fall prey to the use of shaved keys more often than others. For example, Toyota, Honda and Saturn vehicles between the model years of 1980 and 1996 are the most common ones taken using shaved keys. These earlier model cars and trucks used very similar ignition systems, making them easily defeated with the use of a shaved key. However, because of the different key lengths used by the manufacturers, most shaved keys will still be used to steal the same brand of vehicle they came from. For example, a Toyota key will be ground down and used to steal any Toyota vehicle. This can be of great assistance when trying to pin down the suspect in a certain vehicle theft.
To identify a shaved key, first look at the key's ridges on its side. Are they ground down? Are there marks where the key has been shaved with another object? Also, look at the face of the key for similar marks. The best way to check the face is to look at the key head-on, as if you were putting the tip of the key on your nose. If it is shaved, the key will appear almost paper-thin. Compare it to a normal key if you need to; the difference is normally very obvious. Also, look for these keys to be attached to a key ring of "normal" keys. Many times, a car thief will carry a ring of house keys and other vehicle keys with the shaved ones. That way, they can tell you they have the keys for legitimate reasons. Check all keys you find on a suspect when searching him.
So, what can we as officers do when we find a shaved key? Plenty. For one, shaved keys are burglary tools, plain and simple. There is no reason anyone should possess a shaved key, regardless of his or her occupation or employer. This isn't like finding a suspect with a trunk full of hand tools, where they can explain they work in construction. This is totally different. Shaved keys are only used to steal vehicles, period. Get with your local auto theft unit on ways to identify shaved keys and learn to spot them in the field. A simple in-field contact can lead to an arrest for possession of burglary tools, thus stopping dozens of auto thefts in your city before they happen.
Once you locate one, be sure to show the key to your beat partners so they are aware of what to look for. Talk to your local district attorney to educate him or her on the new cases that will be cropping up involving these keys. You can make a huge difference in the auto theft rate in your city or jurisdiction by locating and confiscating these keys, and more importantly, arresting the people carrying them. Happy hunting!