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.

Have a question you’d like answered on Piston Slap? Send your queries to pistonslap@hagerty.comgive us as much detail as possible so we can help! Keep in mind this is a weekly column, so if you need an expedited answer, please tell me in your email.


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    Reminds me of the old biker saying “for added security always park your motorcycle next to a motorcycle worth at least twice as much as your own bike”

    I never heard of getting keys cut online. Anyway, why not just go to a local hardware store, car dealer, or locksmith, unless they simply cannot make a particular key? Please support local businesses!

    What makes you think I didn’t support a local business? I did, they just provide most of their services in the Los Angeles area. This local business gave me factory correct Ford keys for the same price as the aftermarket junk most locksmiths cram down your throat to save money. And if you want factory keys, they will charge you to order them.

    Local locksmiths in other locales are great, and E-commerce isn’t just for heartless multinational corporations.

    Can’t a seller simply state “original keys are included” instead of photographing them in the foreground to obscure body damage on the car in the background?

    We had a truck with a worn-in ignition cylinder that started via flat-blade screwdriver for years.

    For some vehicles my understanding is there isn’t actually that many different key variations. Rob Seigel could probably tell us if BMW keys are “one of 12” or such for example since he has a bunch of similar era cars.

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