Confessions of a convicted vending burglar

Feb. 1, 2005
A former vending thief reveals how easy it was to learn and practice the trade.

I am a thief. You may not recognize the look in my eyes as I walk up to your vending machine, but I can assure you I'm not giving the product selection anywhere near the attention I'm giving the machine locks and the area around the machine. After all, this is my livelihood.

Admit it: You have a preconception of what a thief is supposed to look like. Unkempt hair. Ratty clothes. A shifty look in his eyes. Fine and good, but there's only one problem. I don't look like that. Nor do I wear a sign that says "Thief" in big bold letters.

You have probably seen 2 million people who look just like me, and never gave them a second glance.

Forget your stereotypes about thieves
I wasn't always a thief. My background includes over 30 years as a computer professional, including writing computer articles for business magazines. I wore a tie to work every day for over 20 years. When I became a thief, I dressed like any other professional, except I worked fewer hours.

So how did I become a thief? About 10 years ago, I developed a crack habit, and that habit was very expensive. I began stealing laptop computers from work and selling them to support my habit. Eventually, I got caught, and that ended my computer career. I spent six months in jail for computer theft.

For the next eight years, I worked at various jobs, including customer service, shipping and receiving, and temporary jobs. I did fine until about three years ago, when my employer went out of business. I had a hard time finding another job with the limited skills I had outside of the computer field.

How burglary skills are learned
One day, while sitting at home with someone I met in the county jail, he told me about his means of support: picking locks on video poker games. Being the techno-geek that I am, I started doing lock pick research on the Internet.

There are millions of websites devoted to either teaching lock picking or selling lock picks. I became hooked on the idea. And while many of the professional locksmith sites will only ship to certified locksmiths, there are many more sites that are simply drop-shippers for the toolmakers, and they are willing to sell to anyone who will send them a check.

Within a week, I had my first set of picks at a cost of $200.

A promising beginning
I don't want to give anyone information on how to pick locks in this article, but I do need to emphasize just how easy it is. While it is easy enough to buy a cheap lock to practice and learn on, it's also just as easy to go out into the field and learn how.

Upon reading the instructions provided, and after looking over a few articles on the Internet, I hit the street in search of vending machines. Needless to say, they are everywhere.

Being the careful sort, I decided that I didn't like the concept of standing in front of a machine situated outdoors with the entire world watching me fool with the lock. So I started looking in hotels, hospitals, schools and office buildings for machines located out of public view.

I soon settled on one in the vestibule of a local government building. After watching traffic flow for 30 minutes, I was ready to try my luck. I walked up to the soda machine, inserted my pick, and imagine my surprise when within 30 seconds the lock popped open.

I took a quick glance around, unscrewed the handle, reached inside, and I was $100 richer, with a heart rate that would have set off any hospital's emergency code system.

Nicely enough, the pick holds the lock settings, so I was able to close up the machine and relock it. Total elapsed time: about two minutes. I then proceeded to leave the area, watching carefully for anyone paying any attention to me.

Five minutes of work: $200
Within 30 minutes, I was satisfied that nobody had observed me, so I returned and reaped another hundred dollars from the candy machine next to the soda machine. Two hundred dollars from less than five minutes of actual work!

As with any trade, practice makes perfect. I was constantly learning more about locks from the Internet, and learning more about how locks actually pick, and that, combined with actual practice, soon cut my average time down to less than 60 seconds per machine.

Stubborn locks? I'd just move on
I also learned to pick padlocks that were used to lock up the machines. Yes, there were some locks that would give me trouble, but I soon realized that rather than spend five minutes adjusting the tool tension to match the lock, I could drive down the street to a different machine and have that one open in 30 seconds.

With practice and increasing expertise, I started to work on a schedule. Three days a week, I would leave home, drive for a hundred miles or so, and visit a new town. I would stick around long enough to make $500 to $1,000, and then head home. This would be about 10 machines, on average. Not much work at all.

Preference for older machines
I did develop a liking for smaller towns (population 15,000 to 80,000). In the larger towns, there are enough newer vending machines with unpickable locks. While there may be a lot of older machines in larger towns, finding them can take a lot of work.

My normal routine was to get off the interstate and look for a tourist information booth. I would get a city map, and ask about the locations of hospitals, colleges, hotels, and any other large public areas such as malls, bowling alleys and zoos.

I would then go visit a few different places. If they all had newer locks, I would get back on the interstate and proceed elsewhere.

Learning the best hours
I soon developed routines I would do while visiting these towns. Hotels were visited during the afternoon hours. Hospitals were early evening (8 p.m., when visiting hours were just about over). Colleges were sometimes open till midnight, but before 10 p.m. seems to be the best time. Colleges and hospitals were also pretty clear at 6 to 7 a.m.

If a town was going really well, I might get a room at a local hotel and spend the night, and resume looking the next day.

One nice feature of some larger buildings was multiple machines keyed alike. I could spend 30 seconds picking one lock, tighten the tension on my pick, and then go from machine to machine just like I owned a key, simply open it and grab the money.

I rarely took the change from a machine. Change makes a lot of noise when being poured out of a metal bin. It also extends the time with the machine open. If I just took the bills from the bill holder, the machine would be open less than 20 seconds, thus severely limiting the opportunity someone would see me in the machine.

The day my luck ran out
Well, I guess I knew it would happen sooner or later. I was at a college in the Midwest, and before proceeding to the main lounge, which held about 10 machines, I decided to check the tension on my pick by testing it on a machine in a different building.

I didn't have the pick out for more than four seconds before the machine opened, and I was not about to close a machine before taking the money out. Through the door next to me walked not just anyone, but the manager of the college physical plant building, who happened to know who serviced the local machines. Which was not me.

He followed me across the campus and radioed the campus security patrol, who reported me to the local police force. I managed to drop my tool into a bush, but I was nonetheless charged with and convicted of theft.

First fine: $200, hardly a deterrent
I was fined a grand total of $200. That certainly wasn't much of a deterrent for someone making well over a thousand dollars a week, working about six hours.

Several months later, I made another mistake. The day I sprayed Teflon on my tool to help lubricate it, I was in a lounge near my home. I walked up to the cigarette machine, and within 20 seconds, I had $90 in my pocket. But because the tool was so loose, I was unable to relock the machine.

Another unlucky day, or so I thought
As I stood there for a minute trying to relock it, one of the lounge employees saw me poking at the machine. The employees called the police and reported me.

After pleading guilty, I received 20 days in the county jail. This was a bit more of a deterrent than a fine, but still, 20 days in the county jail for a profession that had supported me for over two years at this time wasn't such a high price to pay. And there were still very few honest jobs to be had in my area, so I wasn't anxious to give up on stealing from vending machines.

In my home state, vending machine theft is a misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of a year in jail. So up to this point, I had stolen an estimated $150,000, and had received 20 days in jail and a $200 fine. That estimate may seem high, but I calculate I worked three days a week, and never returned home with under $500. The average was probably close to $800 a day.

So where did the money go? I was a crack addict, and $300 to $400 a night is spent very easily.

As easy as it was, things did go downhill. I was still friends with the person who taught me my first lock-picking lesson. Unlike my own cautious habits, my friend's habits were more careless.

While I would look for machines isolated from public view, and never spend more than a minute or two at the machine, my friend would take each lock as a personal challenge. He also didn't share my aversion to working in public areas.

Videotape evidence
He was videotaped picking a lock at a gas station for eight minutes. The camera did not capture his face, but it did capture him picking the lock. This was in a well traveled entryway to a populated gas station, 2 feet from the register and the clerk!

The videotape evidence was not sufficient enough to convict him of the crime, but it did get the police on his trail. Six months later, his girlfriend was arrested for a drug offense. As part of a plea bargain, she ratted on her boyfriend and some other associates.

Fortunately, I didn't get caught, but I decided to move. I headed south. Little did I know that the state I moved to had stiffer penalties for vending burglary. A week or two later, I made another mistake.

I went down at midnight to visit the vending machine in the lobby of my hotel. While I was inside the machine (a whole 30 seconds), the door behind me opened and a policeman entered, and so ended my career.

Plying my trade in the wrong location
Unlike my home state, this state considers vending machine theft a felony if you have any previous convictions, and I ended up with a 30-month prison sentence. One good thing that came out of it was that I entered a drug rehabilitation program, so I eventually overcame my drug addiction.

In the last two years, I've learned a lot about myself, and a lot about locks, and a lot about stealing. I'm not your concern any longer, but what I've learned about the locks and stealing can be useful to you, the businessman, if you care to listen.

Preventive measures that don't work
Here are some things not to do.

  • Putting a marked coin or bill into the machine to determine whether theft has occurred. Yes, I've seen my share of these when I count my earnings. Most of the time I went back to the machine and used the marked currency to make a purchase, so they would be in the machine when the owner counted his money.
  • Immediately suspecting inside theft, or relying on public presence to prevent theft. I shudder to think of the machines that I have emptied more than once. Since the tool settings can be written down after picking a lock, going back a second time is simply a matter of setting the tool and walking inside. There have been machines I emptied every week for two months; there was even one change machine which I emptied eight times in a three-month period.

    Don't rely on the public to report suspicious behavior, because if I have the tool already set to the lock settings, it looks like I walked in with a key.

  • Counting on building employees to notice suspicious behavior. Many employees are not aware of who is supposed to service machines. I've had employees walk right past me while emptying money out of machines, with not even a second glance.

Employees can be fooled
As long as I act like I am supposed to be there, most employees will not question it. There were times I considered getting a jacket with "Empty Vending Services" printed on the back.

There was a time early in my studies when I was emptying a machine in front of a store, and I was emptying it completely by continually pressing the quarter button on the changer to empty it.

I was actually sitting on the ground inside the open machine door, and when I got up to close it, an employee of the business was there looking at me. I explained that the machine had been having problems, and that they should now be solved. I then got in my car and drove away. Another time a janitor walked up behind me while I was emptying the bills out of a changer. I proceeded to close the machine, and put a bill through to "test" it. I said out loud to myself, "Works fine now," and walked away.

  • Changing the lock to another lock of the same type. In one town there were two adjacent hotels, each with about eight machines. After about three trips, hotel A changed its locks. After the fourth trip, hotel B did the same. At this point, both hotels were keyed the same!

    After the fifth trip, hotel A now changed to a different style lock, but hotel B is still on the same lock. In a similar vein, there was one location with four vending machines with the same locks, and a change machine with a disk tumbler lock. For some strange reason, the third time I visited that location, the change machine lock had been changed to a different lock. So I emptied all four and the change machine.

I hope you put some of this shared knowledge to good use. It may save your business from a major loss some day.

About the author: Lowell Johnson is a pseudonym for a convicted vending burglar. Automatic Merchandiser reviewed his court records and agreed not to use his real name.

Vending burglar's tips on preventing external theft

  1. Spend the money on a good lock, for which no pick is made. A simple Internet search for lock picks will give you about 500 websites, about half of which sell them. Many locks are just too easy to get picks for to use them to secure your assets. I would suggest either an electronic lock, which uses keys that are cut at angles and heights, or locks which use different key shapes and round tumblers.
  2. When in doubt, talk to a locksmith.
  3. Location, location, location. Yes, I'm sure you've heard it before. But you have to know that the only secure site is one under direct physical observation by an aware employee all the time. I have emptied many machines within 6 feet of an attendant behind a counter. But if they need to stick their head over the counter to see the machine, it's not really being observed. And I can be so quiet opening a machine that it sounds like I just bought a product.
  4. Put padlocks on the machine. But one word of advice. Padlocks vary in quality. A poor one won't take long to pick. It seems from my research that a good padlock will cost much more than a good lock on the machine to begin with.
  5. Use security cameras. But two points. Stay away from fake cameras (yes, I can tell the difference!) and mount them where they cannot be reached. I have occasionally walked into a location and reached up and redirected the camera away from the machines, or just unplugged it. If I go back later and nobody has fixed it, I know it's not looked at very often. And please don't mount a camera (as did one location) so that it could observe all the video games but not the change machine (which contained $1,400). Hidden cameras are not needed. The more visible they are, the better. And yes, after visiting one site for the fifth time, I thought the smoke detector looked different, so I made a loop of duct tape and covered it.
  6. Change your route schedules periodically. I can calculate your route service days. If you refill the machines and empty the money on Wednesday, sometimes I will visit on Friday or Monday. When you go on Wednesday, there are some bills in the machine, and (assuming I left the change) a bit of change.