Piston Slap: Blur photos of your keys online, please!

Sajeev Mehta

Sanjeev (not my real name) writes:

Judging by the number of comments generated from my last visit here, it’s clear that Sajeev needs me to keep his precious Piston Slap series afloat. So now let’s talk about what he did last week after breaking the key to his Ford Ranger, because it has ramifications for many an antique/classic vehicle owner.

Sajeev Mehta

He clearly needed a replacement key, but that didn’t stop him from showing off his totally excellent gluing skills. I mean, really? Bravo Sajeev, you clearly deserve the podium that Hagerty bestowed upon you.

Sajeev (my real name) answers:

I both JB-welded AND plasti-welded the old key: it’s stronger than ever, but it is pretty ugly. Sanjeev, I’d never let you on this series if it wasn’t for people asking for you by name. Sigh.

But he is right, because if you are one of those folks who likes to sell old cars online, flaunt on social media, etc., it is time to stop posting photos of your car keys. I just learned that a locksmith can take said photo and turn it into a real key, but to be fair, this has probably been going on since the dawn of the Internet.

The potential for misuse is bigger today, however, as we have online auctions with key photos to prove a vehicle’s originality, and those photos can show one’s location and can be narrowed down via cross-referencing photos on Google Street View. And your personal information is far from private on a “public” social media account, as we all know what coffee shops you like to visit.

There’s a chance someone could put all the clues together. And when they do, they’ll make a key and swipe your vehicle from right under your nose. This is more relevant to those with older vehicles that lack an ignition cutoff chip, as older keys work with nothing more than a mechanical handshake between metal parts. So without any further ado, here’s how the key copying procedure works.

eBay Motors

First you go online to buy a key, but you call/email/direct message the seller to ensure they are a locksmith that can cut the key before shipping it to you. My preferred method for this is eBay Motors, as you can easily find the factory key, an upgraded key, a cheap knockoff, etc., and use eBay’s price-sorting feature to find the best value. Upon your purchase, send a photo of “your” original key to the online locksmith.

If they are on the up-and-up, they might ask for an ID or verify the mailing address added to your eBay account. But if they aren’t, they won’t. No matter, once that legal/moral hurdle is cleared, the locksmith uses the photo to replicate the cuts on a key blank. When the deed is done, the key goes in the mail, headed for whatever plans the buyer has in mind for it.

I opted for an upgrade at the same time, going from the solid plastic key to one with a metal Ford logo. I was certain it’d work, and the eBay Motors locksmith was happy to confirm my suspicions. He/she also asked me to “win” another auction to pay for the key cutting service, and the keys were in my mailbox in three business days. Wow.

Something, something Millennial Anti-Theft Device (cringe). Sajeev Mehta

I opened the envelope, tested the (still un-programmed) keys in my Ranger’s door and the ignition-lock cylinders and was satisfied with the photo-to-key cutting procedure. They still wouldn’t start the truck, but key programming information is readily available online for almost any vehicle. I had the factory repair manuals (for a truck that seemingly never breaks down), so I put them to good use instead.

And it worked! Now I have two upscale blue oval keys, and the total damage to my wallet was less than $50, including tax and shipping. While I used this power for good and not evil, it would be fun to play a prank on a friend with this knowledge in mind: Get a photo of their key, make a copy, do the prank, and give them an extra key for their trouble. But that ain’t me, and it never will be.

So instead I am warning you, dear reader: Keep your keys close and far away from prying eyes with smartphones. And if you must flex on haters with a photo of your vehicle’s unlocking tool, blur the important bit. Because while it may not be offensive like other censored content on the Internet, what can be done to your vehicle certainly is offensive to you.

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    The ONLY way I could get a spare key for my 1981 Porsche 928, was to show the dealership my license, registration, and a photograph of the VIN plate in the front window. I said “but I have the key here….I just want a duplicate.” He then told me that the factory in Stuttgart has key configurations for EVERY Porsche since 1971, and they match your new key to the VIN of your car. I plunked down my $91.00 (!) and was told …”we’ll call you”. 12 days later, my key arrived from Germany and I went to the dealer to pick it up. Imagine my surprise when (A) I open the envelope and find…just the metal part of the (no head!). So of course I need a head…($41.50, in stock). He gets it, I attach it, and (B) the key fit ! The doors, trunk , ignition, AND the gas cap! I went back inside, and expressed my thanks, and the service manager told me that I had just purchased “cheap” lockout insurance…He then said..those 928’s cannot be opened with a slim jim, and the typical locksmith will have to break the window to get the job done on site. That’s $700.00 (without the locksmith’s fee!).

    This is a good point, as German vehicles for many years had keys that are harder to duplicate. But I wonder if that’s still the case, because I see (non Porsche branded) keys for your vehicle on eBay for sale by locksmiths.

    Pretty nifty repair job on the original key, Sajeev, I’m impressed (ugly don’t bother me, I’m into cheap/useable when it comes to car keys). Interesting how – in the names of progress, modernity, labor-savings, and a zillion other things – the internet and social media have managed to make us ALL more vulnerable to all sorts of negative activities (scams, I.D. theft, harassment, robbery, and key-copying to name just a few). And people wonder why I keep Alexa, Suri, and lots of stuff out of my home, and why I long for rotary-dial phones and hand-written grocery lists! Ah, well.
    I have had vehicles that one could start with a narrow pocketknife blade (but of course, most folks don’t carry multibladed folding knives nowadays, so I feel pretty safe). I can’t figure out why in heck I would ever post a photo of my car keys online (let alone my knife blade 😄), but I suppose this is good advice nonetheless. But then I’d have to look into purchasing software like PhotoShop to do the blurring – or maybe just wrapping the key blade with electrical tape would do the trick.

    Me either. But I enjoyed the article.

    A local hardware store where I live will cut your blanks so until they won’t I wouldn’t be tempted by an online cutter.

    Honestly – this is a potential problem in the theoretical, but in the practical sense, I just don’t get it.

    Have a look at the number of keys photographed on Bring a Trailer auctions. It’s probably not an issue relevant to your life, but I see way too many keys photographed online these days.

    Sajeev, In the article, it refers to “key photos to prove a vehicle’s originality” (written by either you or that Sanjeev fellow, I can’t recall for sure). At any rate, and I guess I’m being a real rube here, how can a photo of a key “prove a vehicle’s originality”? Or maybe that’s fodder for a whole new Piston Slap column…

    For some people, having two factory original keys adds value to a classic vehicle. It absolutely adds value to modern vehicles with expensive key fobs, but there’s something about originality and provenance with an old car that still has everything it came with from the dealership. It’s one of those things that shows the owners truly cared about the car.

    Man, I’m sure moving in the wrong circles, or maybe the completely right (as in “sane”) ones. I’m from the group who thinks a key is something to start the darned car, nothing more or less. Anyway, I’ll reiterate my prior opinion that for “some people”, your advice is good.
    For the other 6.97786 billion of us on Planet Earth, it’s probably irrelevant.

    Interesting article Sajeev! I hadn’t realized people were posting pics of their keys. I’m not too involved on the ‘Social Media’. I can see how that could lead to bad people doing exactly as you described. Good work there.
    Now I’m just and old GM guy, I do have a key from an old Chevy truck that also works in my Chevelle and my El Camino. That was a thing with the old mid-sixties GM keys. 🙂 What’s old is new and different again!

    My custom car has a steering column from I believe a U.K. Ford Ka. It has the engine and wiring from a Subaru WRX. The builder gave me one key. It has the chip from the Subaru embedded in it. I have never seen a Ford key like this. It’s round with dimples, not flat. If I lose it, I’m up a creek without a paddle. It would certainly be impossible to copy it by a photo.

    I have a stranger key story. We had a 1963 Ford Econoline van (an early conversion) that had a pretty worn out key (it was my mom’s daily driver for 15 years). One day on a whim I put in the key to our 1968 El Camino. Not only did it slide right in, but it turned and started the van!

    I have a similar story. Sometime around 1970 I was camping with my family at a VERY remote camp ground in Quebec. We had a 1964 Ford Galaxie 500. Someone else with another Ford (don’t remember the model) had locked his keys in the trunk. We figured “what the heck” and tried our keys in his car. To everyone’s surprise, they worked!

    Broken key? Yes, I had a crappy Ford Escape with the chip key, and the broken key ring loop. Instead of getting an expensive new “chip” key, I simply had the hardware store cut a few basic key blanks, then tucked the broken chip key inside the steering column. With the transponder near the ignition cylinder, any cut key would start the car. Nobody else needed to know.

    I admit I never thought about the copying keys from a photo aspect. Mainly because I have never taken a picture of a car key before.

    If you think a key makes your car secure and want to keep that sense of security, I suggest that you not watch YouTube videos from LockPickingLawyer.

    The best theft-resistance feature these days is manual transmission. My rally car has a removable steering wheel, which works well for theft-resistance as well.

    As far as break-ins, I tend to leave my cars unlocked and not keep anything valuable in them. The damage done when people have tried to bypass the door locks on my cars with screwdrivers and such has far exceeded the value of the items taken.

    Had the Acura “broken into” 3 times at work in 10 years. Nothing was ever broken, damaged, or jimmied, so wasn’t sure what was going on. The first time the cop taking the report said that “a lot of Acura keys work on a lot of other Acuras, especially as they get old and wear.” With a Club and a manual trans, I didn’t worry too much about the car being stolen. But it was a pain to have to take the stereo faceplate, registration, and insurance card into work every time, to insure the car interior was empty. Seemed kind of stupid to have to do on a $1000 DD.

    Someone broke into my Mazda 323GTX. They used a screwdriver on the passenger door lock assembly and applied so much torque that it bent the door panel. Once they got in, they tried the same trick on the ignition switch. That cracked the lock cylinder (in the plane of the key) but it didn’t turn to start the car. I didn’t notice the bent door panel until later but I found that the key fit in the ignition switch very loosely and needed to be wiggled to get it to turn.

    Someone tried to break into my Lotus Europa but just scratched up the door and cracked the fiberglass around the door handle.

    I have made my own keys by inserting blank into cylinder turning front to back pulling out and filing shiny part until key worked, usually twenty minutes until I learned that one out of every ( ) keys worked. Really helped out in the junk yards! I think all the auto makers did the same back in the day. Travel trailers one out of ( ). Maybe TMI knowing you have the keys to a ( ). How many tumbler combinations can there actually be?

    All this online copy business is all good, unless you own a Volvo. In nearly twenty years of owning various P2 models, I’ve never found anyway around going to the dealer and shelling out several hundred apiece for the key blank, the “software download” (as though they don’t already have that), the programming and labor. Despite what the online sellers will tell you, no locksmith will deal with Volvo keys, and the dealer will tell you the “factory fobs” or blanks you bought online are fakes and that you can only get real OEM items through them.

    I learned about this “use a photo to make a key” feature when I was recently shopping for a third key for our new Bronco. For modern cars, someone copying my key isn’t an issue. What is an issue is losing a key and only having one key left, because that’s what makes the difference between being able to program another key yourself cheaply and easily, or requiring a locksmith or dealer to do it for 3x the price (or more). Third key goes in the safe. I’m the key master for the kids’ third keys as well. 🙂

    It’s hard to steal my car when you’re busy trying to call 911 in my driveway before you can’t anymore.

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