If you drive an older vehicle — especially one made before 2000 — criminals may be able to steal it effortlessly with little more than a filed-down car key.
Over the past month, Kings County law enforcement agencies have made a number of arrests involving alleged criminals in possession of “shaved keys.”
Jan Paxton of Paxton Locksmithing in Fresno has about 12 years of experience as a locksmith, including making replacement keys for a wide range of vehicles. He said shaved keys function much like any other lock pick. Criminals can use shaved keys to apply tension and jiggle the key around until the car accepts it.
“It’s basically a tool that takes advantage of a weakness in the lock,” Paxton said.
On Nov. 4, the Kings County Sheriff’s Office arrested Buddy Smith, 41, in connection with the theft of multiple Honda cars. Authorities said Smith was in possession of six shaved keys.
That same day, Lemoore police officers found a stolen vehicle parked at the Lemoore Fastrip in the 700 block of North Lemoore Avenue. The occupants, identified as Dimas Perez, 42, of Hanford, and Brenda Mojica, 36, of Lemoore, were reportedly in possession of several shaved keys.
On Nov. 5, a man allegedly stole a white Ford Crown Victoria belonging to Kings Area Rural Transit. The Hanford Police Department found the car at a south Hanford convenience store. Police said the driver, identified as Michael Castillo, 23, used a shaved key to start the car and drive it away from the KART bus depot on Seventh Street.
Hanford police arrested two people on Nov. 17 for allegedly speeding away from officers in a stolen vehicle near 10th and Harris streets. A search of the vehicle recovered several shaved keys.
Hanford police Lt. George Hernandez said officers routinely run into criminals carrying shaved keys and other tools used to steal cars or break into homes. State law only makes it illegal to possess such tools with the intent of using them for criminal activity. For instance, Hernandez said, a person who uses a screwdriver to break into a car would face an additional charge for possessing burglary tools.
“But it’s not illegal to possess a screwdriver,” Hernandez said. “It’s how you use it.”
According to the California Highway Patrol, there were 521 stolen vehicles reported in Kings County in 2015, compared with 364 the previous year. Police officials in Hanford and Corcoran recently said they have continued to see elevated levels of vehicle thefts this year.
Paxton said older Hondas, Chevrolets and some Ford vehicles, particularly those made before 2000, are most susceptible to shaved keys. He said the tools are usually made from actual car keys, and thieves will carry keys for different makes of vehicles. Because the tools look like ordinary car keys, it can be difficult even for law enforcement to identify them without looking closely.
“It doesn’t look like you’re carrying a slim jim,” Paxton said.
Other criminals may opt to use “jiggle keys” or “jigglers,” which are specialized locksmithing tools that work in a similar fashion.
Because shaved keys and jiggle keys take advantage of an inherent weakness, Paxton said he usually tells owners of older vehicles not to leave any valuables lying around and to make sure their insurance has good theft coverage.
“There’s really not much people can do about it,” Paxton said.
Newer vehicles are equipped with immobilizer systems that won’t allow the vehicle to start without a coded microchip from the original key.
Officer John Tyler, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol’s Hanford area office, said the best way to prevent theft is to not make your vehicle an easy target. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, 40 percent to 50 percent of vehicle theft is due to driver error, such as leaving doors unlocked or leaving the keys in the vehicle.
Tyler said he once took a vehicle theft report in Hanford involving a stolen Mazda pickup truck. The Hanford Police Department found the truck about a month later with the keys still in the ignition.
Investigators found a cellphone in the truck, but were unable to tie the phone to the thief. Tyler said he contacted the truck’s owners to ask some follow-up questions.
“I said, ‘Did you give your keys to someone?’ ” Tyler said. “And they said, ‘No, we left them in the cup holder.’ ”
Tyler said vehicle owners can discourage thieves by making sure their doors are locked and using a steering wheel lock. Alarm systems and similar anti-theft devices can also make your vehicle less appealing to thieves.