Electronic Locks Offer More Features to Keep Ahead of Burglars

April 7, 2006
Besides providing better security than mechanical solutions, electronic systems must protect software and minimize the need for daily management.

The control of cash in our equipment has been one of our daily tasks since we began our vending business. Virtually every week, VendingMarketWatch.com reports an occurrence of someone breaking into a vending machine. We have also taken steps to control our cash from internal theft since the day we hired our first employee.

Many large operators and managers, myself included, remember the days when product that went into the machines and cash that came out of them was tracked manually on "machine cards." At best, we were attempting to minimize internal theft and we were never sure how good of a job we were doing to guarantee all of the money came back to the money room.

Technology advances for theft prevention
Fortunately, technology has helped us to control our product and cash on an everyday basis. The refinement of the DEX standards for machines by NAMA, the equipment manufacturers and other technology suppliers is now enabling us to utilize this technology in any manufactured machine of any age.

Technological advances have and will continue to help us get a better handle on where our cash and product are at any time of the day or night.

But now that dollar bills make up the majority of cash versus the coins of years past, the thieves are now able to obtain a large amount of cash and discreetly walk out the door. Unfortunately, the Internet has given the thieves valuable information of the equipment and locking systems, enabling them to determine the quickest method to break into a machine.

What does a thief have in mind when attempting to burglarize a machine? He is thinking: "Which machine will allow me to gain access quickly (within two minutes) and quietly without drawing attention, enabling me to get away with the most amount of money?"

As much as technology has helped us with internal theft, technology companies are also helping us with external theft. As was reported in this magazine in November of 2004, electronic locks are becoming more and more popular as a method of curbing both external and internal theft.

Electronic locks' advantages
Many advantages exist for the various electronic locks versus the standard barrel locks:

  • Thieves are virtually unable to pick the locks.
  • The new locks are very difficult to drill to break into a machine.
  • The ability for a thief to create duplicate keys is virtually eliminated.
  • The combinations can be quickly and easily changed on a machine that you want to move from one route to another route.
  • The operator can control the specific times a key is active and is able to gain access to the machine.

Many benefits are available for both external and internal theft as well as labor efficiency.

If you have a cash shortage, you are able to determine immediately who has had access to the machine since the last collection. This was a very time-consuming and inaccurate process of years past.

You eliminate the possibility of a route or service person on call to go to a machine on another route at off hours and remove cash from the machine.

If a set of keys is lost, you no longer need to change the locks on all machines. The electronic keys are normally "refreshed" on a daily basis when the route and service people report back to the office at the end of the day. The keys become inactive once they reach the expiration time you have set for them. In most cases this would be the end of the day. When a set of keys is lost, they become virtually useless to the person who finds the keys.

On a daily basis, you have an audit trail of exactly where a route person was at any time of the day. This allows you to determine the amount of time the route person is taking to fill each individual machine as well as nonproductive driving time throughout the day.

Different systems are available
Several manufacturers currently produce electronic locks, including TriTeq Lock and Security, Videx Inc. and Medeco High Security Locks. Each lock has its own distinct advantages. All three of these lock companies have software that enables you to program the time periods each key is active and can be used to open a machine.

All of the software programs provide you with the audit trail of each key and lock, thus telling you who gained access or attempted to gain access at a certain time to any machine in your company.

"We have heard from our customers that CyberLock has reduced internal theft just because of the fact that the employee knows of the existence of an audit trail of openings and attempted openings," said Andy Hilverda, vice president at Videx. "The software audit information has also helped with the legal aspect of providing factual data, whereas before all an operator had was circumstantial evidence."

Security of the software itself must be a consideration as well. Most electronic lock manufacturers utilize an encrypted data system.

"Electronic key products in a variety of industries that have become more prevalent in the field are being hacked," said Gary Myers, president of TriTeq Lock. "Recently, the automotive industry, a longtime user of electronic keys, has been targeted by the thieves. In a Wall Street Journal article it was reported that there is now a method of cracking the codes using today's computers on the simple RFID systems in automobiles. In vending, it's important that the level of security is well protected. Rolling codes and two-way encrypted data allow us to keep high levels of security in vending."

"We have been told by our customers that they have been able to reduce their trade loss substantially," said Bill Deutsch, marketing manager at Medeco High Security Locks. "Our customers have also told us that they operate their routes much more efficiently by using our software as they are able to see exactly how long a route person takes to fill his or her machine, including driving and break activities by time of a specific route."

Daily maintenance of electronic locks
A key element in building an electronic key system is ensuring that it does not become a job unto itself. Look close for systems that can work with minimal daily intervention. The "refreshing" of keys that allow them to be "active" to open machines during specific periods of time that is determined by the operator is a part of most electronic lock systems.

The process consists of a docking system connected to the home office or branch computer. The office "control" person utilizes the docking system to activate the keys for another period of time, usually 24 hours.

Another option offered by some systems allows route drivers to refresh their own keys by using a PIN number as they place their key into the docking system.

TriTeq utilizes a method in which the operator designates which locks are allowed to be opened by specific keys, or alternately using a one-key approach.

"The one-key approach allows the route drivers or service drivers to open all venders, but yet are tracked by the software when they are off their respective routes. This will eliminate the need for a route driver or service tech person to drive back to the office or alternately hook up online on the road to allow access to venders that have been moved," said Myers of TriTeq Lock.

Cellular network allows for faster access
Videx introduced a new addition to its software that allows the operator to authorize a key to open a specific lock in a machine via a cellular phone. "The new cellular CyberKey will be especially helpful for the service repair people who must have access to machines on a variety of routes at a moment's notice," said Hilverda of Videx. "We are also introducing software that provides the capability of the home office to manage their multiple branch operations. Rather than utilizing independent software for each branch, the branch will be able to do their own scheduling on a central system that can be monitored by the home office."

"Our software was specifically designed for daily route management," said Deutsch at Medeco. "If someone calls in sick on a particular day, the machines from that route are easily transferred to another route's keys for that particular day. Our Nexgen communication manager allows the computer operator to load the route schedule into the software the night before and shut the computer down at night. The next morning, the route driver is able to place his or her key into the docking station and download the schedule while the main application is down."

Point of difference in hardware options
A point of difference between the various electronic lock options is in the physical lock and key. Videx and Medeco locks replace only the barrel plug locks, and thus they utilize the machine's physical locking system. In the case of a soda machine, this is the t-handle threaded lock. In the case of a snack machine, this is the two-point "bar and hook" locking system.

"CyberLocks are quickly installed in the same amount of time it takes to replace the current barrel lock," said Hilverda of Videx. "Our new hockey-puck style padlock is very effective at preventing break-ins due to drilling the lock as we utilize a robust stainless steel housing."

Medeco also manufactures a hardened t-handle and incorporates hardened steel roll pins in its locks. "We have available to our customers a feature called a 'spinner' for our t-handles that prevents the thieves' drill bit from making contact with the lock itself," said Deutsch at Medeco. "The spinner sits in front of the plug face and turns with the drill bit, preventing penetration to the barrel lock itself."

Motorized door mechanism
The TriTeq locking system virtually replaces the entire locking mechanism of the machine. It includes both a motorized door mechanism as well as a cabinet receptacle mechanism that pulls and holds the door and the cabinet of the machine together.

The TriTeq locking system for snacks, food and beverage machines utilizes the same lock mechanism seen on the new Pepsi High Visibility Vendors (HVV) that many operators receive from their Pepsi bottler.

Rather than inserting a key into a lock, TriTeq's system consists of a noncontact infrared key fob similar to the one used to open car doors. "Our use of infrared key fobs eliminates any visible lock, creating a potential deterrent for the thief. This makes the machine an unlikely quick target, so no damage occurs to the machine itself," said Myers of TriTeq Lock.

"Another advantage of our system for refrigerated machines is that the seal is much tighter than the conventional t-handle threaded system found on most beverage machines. Since this tighter seal provides less cold air leakage from the machine, you will experience less wear and tear on the compressor and lower energy costs for your customer," said Myers.

Isochron LLC, a telemetry provider to the vending industry, has introduced a key tracking-based solution called the "Key Sentinel." The program consists of a safe located in the delivery or service vehicle that contains an electronic key tracking system connected to a battery power supply. Normal keys are connected to a secure cable that includes an electronic "key." The operator has the option of having the driver place his or her key in the docking station in the vehicle at the end of each service or at the end of each day, depending on the amount of detailed information he wishes to track. The date and time are recorded each time the key is placed in the docking station.

"We offer complete 24-hour accountability to ensure your keys are used during normal business hours," said Sean Howell, senior applications engineer at Isochron. "One benefit of our system is that your service person is able to take their service vehicle and keys home with them. You can ensure they are not accessing other machines during the night and you eliminate the drive time to the office to drop off the keys in the evening and pick up the keys in the morning. Finally, the supervisor can retrieve key audit logs at any time using our software on a standard Pocket PC."

External Security Kits
Some companies have taken security to another level by incorporating security kits to a variety of vending machines. No one knows the problems of external theft more than the bottlers. Since many of their machines are located outside — away from eyes during the night — they are particularly susceptible to break-in situations.

Public locations such as hotels seem to be the choice of thieves breaking into other full-line machines such as snack machines.

Mechanical security panels are available from companies like TriTeq Lock to bolster areas of the beverage vender that have presented themselves as an overall weakness. These panels can be used in conjunction with electronics or hardened designed versions of t-handle locks. Available panels are designed to secure the dollar bill validator from the front and rear of the unit.

The panels also protect the areas surrounding the selection buttons, debit card readers and the LED displays. These areas without protection provide fertile ground for the thief armed with little more than a screwdriver the ability to break into a machine.

While these panels will never protect a vender from attacks with torches and chain hoists, they do provide a deterrent. This deterrent is generally in the form of time. Thieves attempting to gain access to these secure machines may decide that it is not worth their time and risk and will move on to a machine that appears more vulnerable.

Minimally secure your bill acceptors
Most machines have easy access to the dollar bill acceptor and stacker by simple prying on the door to gain access to the back bill stacker or by crushing the front bezel with a hammer. Kits are available that secure the bill acceptor bezel and stacker to make this potentially lucrative area much more difficult to access by someone from the outside.

Reinforced steel covers can either cover just the bill acceptor bezel itself or, for soda machines, a complete top-to-bottom steel attachment can be installed to reinforce the entire right hand side of the door including the coin entry and selection panel section.

One way to eliminate the threat of loss at a particular location is to go completely cashless by installing credit card only readers on machines. Some operators such as North County Vending in Vista, Calif., have decided to remove the coin mechanism and the dollar bill acceptor from certain machines at high-risk locations and allow credit card purchases only.

Return on investment
The topics discussed for the most part require a major investment if we consider our entire route. Obviously, you must compare what your current perceived loss is per year versus the benefit of the investment in new security products. Also take into consideration the nonvandalism benefits you may receive from implementing these products as well.

From an external theft standpoint, you may decide that it is in your best interest to initially target your most vulnerable locations. If you determine that the majority of your vandalism is occurring at your hotel and school locations, then initially invest in security products at these locations.

Electronic locks deter vending burglars
Sometimes these products do more than just lower your cash loss from the machine. Since they also may act as a deterrent to the thieves, you may conclude that you also reduce the labor and parts costs of repairing a damaged machine. You also want to consider the effect these systems have on your internal controls. Many operators receive the most benefit of these products by reducing internal theft.

A final option and the least costly action you can take against external vandalism may be to determine if the machine is at a proper location within your location. Obviously, if your machine is hidden in a back hallway rather than having a position near the front door, your chances for vandalism will probably increase. Convincing your customer to place the machine in a more visible area will not only reduce the potential for vandalism, but it may also increase sales.

One thing is for certain, security issues will never go away. Unlike other retail establishments, our business is such that both internal and external security issues will remain with us for the long term. The question to answer is, how can you keep your losses to a minimum with the least amount of monetary and time investment?