Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Stashing your assets? Find out which safe is best

August 27, 2011

I have a fascination for oddities, in particular technology that other people take for granted or have forgotten. So when I read recently that the street construction work in Fountain Square had to be delayed for, of all things, leftover underground bank vaults, I confess to becoming curious about vaults and safes.

It turns out that safe sales have blossomed recently, because investors fleeing the thrashing stock market are now often sitting on gold, jewelry and even cash. Entire nations are hoarding. Hugo Chavez, the volatile president of Venezuela, announced recently that he was bringing his country’s scattered gold reserves home, all 211 tons and $12 billion worth. Presumably he has a bank vault big enough to hold all of that, although as one commentator pointed out, 211 tons of gold takes up surprisingly little room.

But what about the ordinary guy who wants safety and doesn’t want to trot down to the local bank’s vault whenever he needs access to his treasures? It would seem that a lot of us are in that situation, because sales of personal safes are way up. Earlier this month, CNN Money reported that some safe companies are seeing double and triple their sales of just a month ago. When the going gets tough, the canny investor apparently hunkers down and spins the knob on his safe.

Safes come in all sorts of configurations, sizes and purposes. The basic business safe is designed to protect assets from fire—not to forestall enemy agents or international jewel thieves. Most safes sold to both businesses and individuals are marketed as fire-resistant. Underwriter’s Laboratories rates safes for fire resistance into three categories. Class C offers the least protection, one hour at 1,700 F. Class B goes one better, up to two hours at 1,850 F, and Class A goes all the way to four hours at 2,000 F.

When buying a safe, experts counsel that you consider what you have to protect and how much you’d miss those things if they vanished, because cost and hassle are commensurate with security level. They also note that while the capacity of a safe won’t change over time, your stash of valuables will almost certainly grow, so it’s best to buy some spare room. Safes are usually marketed and rated for fire resistance, burglary resistance, or both. Straight-up fire safes usually don’t have a lot of burglary protection.

Other things to keep in mind: The outer and inner dimensions of safes are radically different, so after you figure out what interior space you’ll need, you’ll have to allocate much more wall or floor space than that for the entire safe. If you’re buying a big safe, you should make sure your chosen floor space will hold it, and that it can be maneuvered into place without removing the side of the building. Burglary-resistant safes are often bolted to the building or set into concrete.

Locks have advanced considerably over the years. The newest technology now is the biometric safe, which requires the presentation of a fingerprint to unlock. This high-tech mechanism has a lot of marketing pizzazz, but in operation may be less secure than the old-fashioned black knob.

In fact, there’s a famous form of biometric hack known as the “Gummi bear attack.” If the previous person to unlock the safe has left a residue of oily fingerprint on the scanner, it may be possible to press the back side of a Gummi bear onto the lock to fool it into thinking that a finger is present and consequently to trip the lock.

Even if the Gummi bear assault isn’t effective, there are other ways to defeat such a lock. The MythBusters TV show featured a method a while back. It took the MythBusters a while to work out a way to do it, but they finally concocted a nearly foolproof way of duplicating a real fingerprint even for a fussy biometric lock. The key is being able to obtain the safe owner’s fingerprint, which is not as hard as it sounds.

It’s said about various kinds of locks that they keep out the honest folk, and I think it’s true. A fanatically devoted thief is very likely to walk away with your valuables one way or another. But there’s no reason to make it easy for him, so if you’re holding a lot of tangible investments, a safe seems like a reasonable precaution. Just don’t let the MythBusters anywhere near it.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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