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Forensic Locksmith Services

Forensic examinations, Reports and Expert Testimony 


Auto Theft - Real or Staged ?

How was a vehicle stolen ? Was the vehicle really stolen or was it staged ? These are questions that are sought out by courts, insurance company's, lawyers and their clients. There are cases where a vehicle was reported stolen only to collect on the insurance. There are cases that the insurance company refuses to pay on a claim because they believe the vehicle was not really stolen. There are cases that individuals are being accused of insurance fraud. There are certain facts that can be ascertained by examining the ignition lock and other parts of the vehicle. these facts may prove or disprove theory's that have been provided in a case. We can examine an automobile and provide a report stating all facts found regarding the condition of the locking mechanisms. There are even facts that can be determined if a vehicle was completely destroyed by fire. If you need to know facts, we can help you.

Whether you are an insurance company,lawyer or individual looking for answers we can help provide a truthful unbiased report of the facts.


Have you been a victim of auto theft only to find yourself being victimized again ? You are accused of insurance fraud ? If your car was truly stolen and you find yourself in this situation we may be able to help by providing actual facts about the locking mechanisms.

Burglary's and Non-Forced Entry 


Did you know when someone picks a lock that evidence of it can be found. If your keys are accounted for and somehow someone got in, is it just presumed that someone has the key? Changing the locks will not really help. Many times when a burglary is reported and there is no signs of forced entry it is just chalked up to someone having a key. while this explanation could be true there are also other explanations that can be overlooked. Was the lock picked? Did someone use a Bump-key? An examination by a forensic locksmith can determine this. 

Protocol For Forensic Examinations On Reported Stolen Vehicles Or Origin and Cause of Vehicle Fire Examinations

Upon Taking Assignment
 It should be noted that all the information set in here is open for interpretation and are meant merely as guidelines and should not be construed or otherwise mistaken for legal advice. If you have questions as to the legal arguments in a specific case or claim, it is suggested you contact an attorney that can address the specific situation that you have. This is only general information in an effort to set needed guidelines in the field of vehicle forensic examinations. Currently there is very little information pertaining to such guidelines and these suggestions are merely a start to the ever growing need for a bar of standards. It is highly recommended if there are valid points we have missed, that suggestions are added from others in the field. It is very important for the examiner to know none of the aspects of the claim other than the facts relating strictly to the event of the vehicle, whether it is a fire or reported theft. This includes no knowledge of the insured's finances, criminal background (if applicable), witness statements, or any information pertaining to the claim itself. Acceptable knowledge would be how the fire developed or was discovered. Possible maintenance records (if the vehicle was serviced directly before the event). Any after market accessories had been installed etc. If any of this personal information about the insured is revealed by the insurance company to the examiner, it can cause bias either intentionally or not. If the insurance company person is determined to tell the examiner such information, the examiner must recluse himself from the claim.

Reported Theft Examinations

 The examiner must detail only the facts to the claim. That means all the facts, not just the ones that will assist in denial of the claim. If only the ignition lock is examined, it must be noted that the vehicle security system was not checked for effectiveness, the number of keys programmed for the vehicle were not considered, the possibility of a after market remote start was not considered etc. No longer will these examinations focus totally around the ignition lock, especially on mail-ins and all know hypotheses must be eliminated before reaching a conclusion as to how the vehicle was last operated. The only reason for the examination of the ignition lock is to rule all known hypotheses related to the defeat of the ignition lock. Instead of being the determining factor as to being the last operation of the vehicle, it needs to be realized that it is one small part of the total process. Since today's vehicles are commonly equipped from the factory with theft deterrents such as transponders and other electronic theft deterrents, sending the steering column to a locksmith is no longer relevant. Unless you mail the complete vehicle for examination there are only two points you have just created for an opposing attorney--Did you intentionally change the focus of this examination to the lock in order to deny the insured's claim? Or did you think the condition of the ignition lock would give you all the answers you need to deny the claim? These days vehicles are commonly equipped with after market units known as remote start that bypass the factory's theft deterrent systems. Was the vehicle so equipped. Was the theft deterrent bypassed for another reason? Were cloning issues considered when dealing with transponders? Were the number of transponder keys programmed for the vehicle checked. If the insured supplied two and after scanning the vehicle's computer there is found to be 4 programmed keys, where are the other two?If you as the insurance company are having steering columns mailed to locksmiths just checking the condition of the lock, you will get caught and when you do, be prepared for the law suits coming at you. You need to do due diligence and if you are sending the column out and only testing the lock and possibly the keys, I guaranty you have very serious problems on the way!It is important to realize that the forensic examination on the vehicle should never be the only reason for denial or paying of the insurance claim. The examination is only one piece of the total puzzle and should be used merely as a tool for the total claims investigation process.From this day forward to do your insurance client a service and not be a liability, you must rule out all theories before reaching your conclusion. If you don't know, you don't know. Some burned vehicles can be very challenging as to determining the last operation of a vehicle. If you can't prove it, don't state it because if you are challenged in court, you could be putting your client in harms way, leaving the potential of having the examiner sued as well. It is your responsibility as the forensic examiner to have errors and omissions insurance, not a shop keepers policy that does not commonly cover this liability of errors and omissions. It is your responsibility as an examiner to have the needed certifications to show your training and background. If you don't have them and you end up in court, you will leave you and your client open for attack. In many states Bad faith and insurance contract law have no cap and the amount of money that the examiner can cost his client can be in the millions just for one claim. Class actions can be filed if a pattern is shown which can cost the carrier even more money! As stated, the forensic examination should never be the only tool relied on for a claim denial, but this tool can be so important as to its content. No matter how hard the insurance company has worked on the investigation of the claim and has found legitimate multiple reasons for denial of the claim, if the examination can be called into question, it is the house of cards and the whole claim denial can be put into jeopardy. If your expert has been called into court many times to support his conclusions for an insurance client, there is obviously something wrong. The examiner is either leaving critical information out of the reports or the conclusions rendered have little or no basis and are easily attacked. If you as the examiner use cut copy and paste reports, they will catch up to you. If the owner of the firm is not reviewing and signing these reports, there is a problem. Sure it is OK to have someone from the office occasionally sign them when there may be a pressing issue, but the report should be signed by the reviewer then. Otherwise, a rubber signature stamp might as well be used and a real good example to this can be cited: The plaintiff's attorney in a case involving a report that was not signed asked why the examiner did not sign the report? The examiner on the stand stated "I did not have time and was thinking about getting a rubber signature stamp." At closing the plaintiff attorney referred to the forensic firm as "being the stamp of denial for the insurance company." When doing these examinations, put yourself in the place of the insured or the defendant. What if your life depended solely on the hinged on the opinion of someone else? What if you life depended on if the examiner was only in this for the money or that the examiner really cared about being able to prove his points?

Bottom line: If you have no ethics and you are in the field of vehicle forensics just for the money and telling your client what you think the client wants to hear, you should not be in this field and you will get caught! In this business credibility is everything!

Vehicle Fire Examination

 Not to be confused with arson investigation! As the examiner, you should not be interviewing witnesses. You should not be checking the insured's financial background. You should not be looking into previous claims losses. As an examiner you should only be looking at the vehicle and the surrounding facts related directly to the fire. You should only be checking facts relating to the fire through either your attorney client or your insurance client with no direct contact with the insured. As an expert in many states, the expert is allowed to base his/hers opinion on hear say information (Check the state you are working in). In other words, you can ask your insurance client what the insured stated as to the details of the fire. An example would be: Vehicle was driven and then parked for 4 hours before fire was noticed. Another example would be that the transmission was changed 12 miles before the vehicle burst into flames. Pay close attention to these details and see if they are consistent with burn patterns. Remember, you are not doing an investigation here. You do not know the details about the insured or the claim history--it is not any of you business as a forensic examiner! If you are performing a fire INVESTIGATION in most states you better be licensed accordingly as a private investigator. If you are removing EVIDENCE for a court, A good example to evidence as it relates to fire would be a solvent can found on the floor of a burned vehicle. It would be considered evidence if you stated "This fire was incendiary and was caused by the ignition of the fluid in this can. The can was retained for evidence." Now, in contrast: "The cause of this fire may have been incendiary and was removed as well as surrounding materials and retained and sent to a lab for accelerant testing and the results of this testing will be addressed later in this report". In many states you need to be a licensed PI to remove EVIDENCE, but not to remove something for testing. Remember though, burn debris is just that and is not evidence until a court calls it evidence. If you are removing materials that can be used to back your opinion based on your training, background and experience as to what you can prove happened to the lock, security system etc. it should not be considered evidence unless you willfully and intentionally admit you destroyed it. Such an instance would be: You inserted a key into the lock. You have now created new evidence of your mishandling of the lock and may have destroyed any EVIDENCE that may have exonerated the client from any wrong doing. Destruction or alteration of evidence is a crime in some states. Documentation is everything! Do not move anything without photographing first! Just remember, you as the forensic examiner do not have the leeway that attorneys do. If you have ever been in a deposition or trial, it is common for them to use assumptions. As an examiner, you cannot assume! You need to be able to prove every point to support your conclusions! There is also "Destructive testing." In some situations you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Technically, destructive testing is not allowed unless all parties to the case are present. Everyone must be notified before such testing. The problem that commonly happens in civil and sometimes criminal situations is that it may be years before one knows who the other side is. This is why it is so important and crucial to document everything you do in the event that the scene has to be recreated. Fires are classic for this. In the situation you see beading of the wiring and it can prove your theory-PHOTOGRAPH it before you touch anything or better yet video the record! That way if you are examining the wiring and it crumbles in your hands, you have it documented. It is also very important to consider the condition of the vehicle and where it is located. Chances of having the vehicle preserved at a junk yard are none. Burned vehicles are turned into trash cans. If you need to save a burned wiring harness for support of your conclusion, you better take it, because you don't know the fate of that vehicle. It is suggested that if a possible subrogation issue is raised in the event of a possible manufacturer's defect that they are notified as well by the insurance client.  

 You should not be determining accelerant unless you are a PHD or in some other related field.. You cannot state based on scientific certainty the fire was MOST PROBABLY started by an accelerant. MOST PROBABLY is not based on scientific certainty and is only an opinion with no basis. It either was started with and accelerant or it wasn't. Were recalls taken into consideration? Yes, new vehicles start on fire!

Report Writing







Be aware that any report generated is subject to court. Be very cautious on the statements made. Can you prove every point?  Remember that the forensic report is only a small piece of the total claim investigation or at least it better be or your client has a problem! Do you work only for insurance companies and law enforcement. Remember, everything is about perception. If your clients are for only one side, there may be a question of your impartiality and independence. The good ole' boy network is dead and if you are still believing in it, it is merely an illusion. Everyone deserves to be treated equally and your job of  being the forensic examiner is the search for the truth no matter who it favors. It can be career suicide to work against insurance companies and some make no bones about it, but your job is to only state the facts. Why degrade your name into being a hired gun for the insurance company unless of course you are in this business only for the money and that will come back to bite you.Your processes must be replicatible. Another expert using the same process should be able to come to the same conclusion. Your report should be concise and clear of unambiguties. You need to address everything related to the request. As stated previously, examination of an ignition lock does not tell the complete story. You need to go farther. You need to use the scientific method, step by step eliminating all known theories. As stated too-commonly seen in reports is "Most probably" and it is construed as being scientific. This is just like being a little pregnant!There is actually a firm that misunderstands the scientific method and puts down percentages of error ratings as being so-called scientific. 95% and above is "Scientific certainty. 75% and above is "Scientific probability." Bottom line--In order to base something on scientific certainty, all theories have to be ruled out until one fits. In order to do this, one has to remove disassemble the ignition lock and examine the components under a microscope in the case of determining the last operation of the lock. The term "Scientific certainty" is used in such cases without these considerations. How would this be a scientific conclusion then? It wouldn't be, but it sounds good!Just remember, whenever writing a report everything you say and how you say it can come back at you and if you as the examiner can't prove your points or the opposing side cannot replicate the process you used, you have problems!  


Recommended Equipment:There are many different variables here depending on the assignment, but here is what we recommend as a general rule in order to give your client the best of service.Camera--35 mm or Digital SLR style. SLR gives the examiner the advantage of changing lenses. You might want to use a wide angle lens for overall photographs and a macro lens for close ups. A SLR is also convenient for using with a microscope either by use as a "T" mount on a stereo scope or placed in the middle hole of a trinocular scope. When it comes to photographs, you can never take to many pictures.Video: Ever so importantly is the entry of the video cam. In many situations it has been the difference between proving your opinions and not. Let's say the claim goes to court three years later after the examination. The vehicle has either been sold or disposed of in another matter. All you can rely on is your photographs and memory. The opposing side can claim spoliation of the evidence. The opposing attorney can argue that his/hers expert cannot recreate your process or say that the examiner's opinions are not valid. If the vehicle is video taped and the tape is available three years later, the examiner has properly documented the situation before he touched the vehicle. We highly recommend making a video copy just in case the claim goes to court. This method is very crucial especially when dealing with burned vehicles, where burned wiring can lose it's evidentiary value just by an accidental touch. Another advantage to video is that something may be seen that was not seen when taking still photographs. Video always gives the examiner the opportunity to "go back" to the condition of the vehicle as examined.Microscopes: There are many choices out on the market these days. Monoscopes (One eye piece), Stereoscopes (Two eye piece) and trinocular that have two eyepieces and an extra hole for a still camera or video. There are different eye pieces available that can display different magnifications. If the microscope is set up with 4.0 lenses and you use an eyepiece that is marked 10x, you can view the subject matter at 40x magnification. If you see where an examiner states he examined a wafer (Tumbler) at 150x, you really need to be suspect because anything over 40x magnification on an ignition lock component causes the examiner to lose his/hers field of view and the examiner has no idea as to what he is looking at.Lighting: Lighting can be crucial when using it with a microscope. There is cool lighting such as florencent bulbs and then there is hot lighting used commonly with fiberoptic tubes and halogen lighting. Remember, the more magnification, the better light source you need. Viewing at 10x magnification requires a lot less light than 40x magnification.Otoscope: There are many different types of scopes out there that can be used for a PRELIMINARY examination of a lock keyway for obvious damage. Commonly limited in viewing, these lighted magnified scopes are like looking in a tunnel when looking in a keyway. I have found it quite common for the examiner to state there were no signs of picking or tampering by use of one of these scopes in a keyway. These statements although may be true in what was or was not observed but in no way rules out that the lock wasn't picked or tampered with. In order to rule out all known hypotheses as it relates to the lock, the lock must be removed, disassembled and all components must be examined under a microscope. The examiner is looking for sometimes small scratches (striations) and identifiable marks related to a newly used tool or key in the lock. The use of these scopes is only for preliminary examination and should never be used as the sole basis of a conclusion. There are some of these scopes that can be equipped with cameras, but as said, these are only for preliminary examinations and that is it!X-Ray: Highly recommended when dealing with burned components. These days because of economics, magnesium is used by many new car makers for their steering column components. If the examiner were to try to re-melt the steering column material, it would be found the material is reignited and is difficult to suppress. The other way to try to re-melt this material is with an oven, but again, the material can reignite before discovering what is inside the melted material. X-Ray is highly recommended for the task of finding out what metallic components (i.e. ignition lock components) are encapsulated in the burn debris. Pictures of said components are also required. Commonly places that do metal testing can assist you in such preparation.Tools: When examining reported stolen vehicles it is required that the ignition lock be removed without inserting a key. Inserting a key into the lock causes potential damage to the ignition lock keyway and in the event a newly cut key was recently used, the examiner has the strong potential for destroying any evidentiary value of the ignition lock keyway. There are many ways to remove a lock from its housing, but the end result is the same. The housing will be broken. One can neatly grind the housing or force the lock cylinder from its housing doing no damage to the keyway, however the housing will be ruined in any event. Destroying the lock housing does not hurt the keyway.Just remember, you can't redo any damage you have done to the keyway and it is your responsibility as the first examiner to preserve the keyway in the condition that you had the opportunity to examine it. Exceptions to the rule would be cleaning carbon and grit from the wafers (Tumblers) in which you have not scraped them or altered them.Simple hand tools can be used to remove many locks from their housings or remove the housing all together. Forensic examination of a reported stolen vehicle--un-burned It should be noted that the complete examination should be video taped in the event the vehicle is subsequently scrapped or sold in the future. This way there is a video record for any possible opposing expert and a jury. People not removing locks because they are concerned about spoiling the evidence are just being lazy and if everything is on video record, there is no problem. In reality, it is the examiner's (expert's) job to preserve anything needed to prove their conclusions. Technically, they could be capable when not removing the ignition lock for an opposing expert to review in the future.Identify the vehicle--confirm the public VINs to your assignment sheet. Is there a stock number at the location where the vehicle is located?  Confirm this number if applicable. Do you have keys for the vehicle at the time of your examination? Are there keys in the ignition lock? If so, note accordingly. Now, we are suggesting these photograph procedures, but in some cases because of how the vehicle is parked, may not be possible. Do your best with what conditions you have to work in. Photograph the left front, side, rear, left rear, right rear, side and right front. Photo the VIN/ stock numbers. Photo the locks, handles and check all possible points of entry to all doors. Go in the passenger compartment preferably through the driver's door. Pull hood release. Photo the left side of steering column and the steering wheel, the driver's area, dash area for stereo and air bags. Go to right front door, open and photo right side of column with ignition lock. If you have a macro lens, photo interior of ignition lock. All this time; note any components that appear to be missing or installed. Check for after market wiring in center of dash and under steering column under dash. Photo accordingly. Look for any after market accessories such as alarms, remote start and if so equipped, the location of the valet switch.Walk to front of vehicle. Open hood. Is battery there? Any missing components? Photograph. Check all fluids for condition. Any obvious oil leaks? If possible like at the auto auctions, have the vehicle raised and check for any irregularities under car. Photograph  and note accordingly. Attempt to open trunk to inspect contents. Use an Otoscope on door lock(s). Any damage? If so Macro photo either way. Go back into passenger compartment. Plug scanner into OBDII port under dash. Remove shroud from steering column and get access to electrical ignition switch or break ignition housing or cut housing to remove ignition lock without using key. Some insurance companies may not care for the cost, but to do a full and complete examination, you need to do this. Get the electrical ignition switch in the ON position and determine how many transponder keys (If so equipped) are programmed for the vehicle. Retain ignition lock for further analysis.Once the photographs are gathered and video is taken a report on the facts is now required.Do not opine like I have seen so many times--"The vehicle revealed no signs of forced entry." You can state you observed no signs of forced entry, but that does not mean it did not happen. Locksmiths open cars everyday doing no damage or they would be sued. Do not make the statement that the ignition would have to be turned on to roll the windows down when its obvious that the door switches are missing and the wires are stripped back. Constant battery power is at the power locks which only needs to be jumped to the window motor.Forensic Analysis of the ignition lock---Never insert a key!!!! You are not looking for last key used. You need to disassemble the lock and examine the wafer lands (Where the key rides) for wear patterns and the possibility f the use of a newly cut key. Not always, but sometimes you might see striations (Scratches) consistent with a newly cut key. Say for instance the key was not deburred properly or had some other sort of anomaly. If you insert a working key in the lock you have the possibility of overriding these marks. Magnifications of the wafers lands can be observed at 10 to 40x and no more or you lose your field of view. What have you done here? You have eliminated all known hypotheses of the use of a freshly cut key, tampering or picking!  Make sure you take micro photos and video the process. In the event you do see marks consistent with pick marks or the use of a newly cut key or some other tool, you can state that as well. Bottom line, you just saved yourself from attack in court and instead of assuming, you can state fact. All too often the use of a Otoscope or bore scope is being used for a definitive answer to eliminate picking or the use of a newly cut key. This tool is for preliminary examination only and will not or cannot rule out anything but obvious damage. Anyone stating otherwise will get slammed in court because it simply is not the truth. Reported stolen vehicles recovered totally burned:Totally burned will be defined here where everything in the passenger compartment is destroyed by fire.Identify the vehicle by stock number, VIN, model style or any way possible to confirm you are looking at the correct vehicle.There are many variables to be considered when examining a reported stolen recovered with a totally burned passenger compartment as to how it was last operated.Check listWere the doors open or closed at the time of the fire? Reason you need to know this is because valuable components to your examination may still be at the fire scene if the front doors were open at the time of fire suppression.How can I tell if the doors were open or closed at the time of the fire? Are the doors hanging open and tied shut? Chances are they were open at the time of the fire. Another way to tell is that although there may be fire damage to the door paint, look at the striker edge. Commonly has paint left if door was open. Look for evidence of the plastic inner door trim panels at the door sills. If doors are closed the plastic drips on sill and forms a wall. If open, you may find very little of these trim panels because they are commonly left at the fire scene or thrown somewhere in the vehicle.If the fire was suppressed, try to determine what area it was suppressed in. Example: If the driver's door was closed and fire suppressed with full stream from passenger front door glass opening, much burn debris will scatter either under seat or up against driver's door. Just take this into consideration. Another consideration is the types of metals you are dealing with and how they react during a fire when water is applied. Many vehicles have magnesium in them which can cause all sorts of problems for the examiner. Ford uses the most magnesium alloy combination that I am aware of in their steering columns. The column will literally ignite at about 1,150 degrees and burn at temperatures up to 5,400 degrees. The problem during fire suppression is that when hit with water, this ignited metal explodes and has the potential to travel anywhere in the passenger compartment. Sometimes any of the ignition lock remains are totally destroyed by fire. A good indication that nothing of the column is left will be white ash lying on the driver's floor.GM still uses zinc for their ignition housings, but since late 2005 are using aluminum wafers. Chrysler is using magnesium alloy, but does not self destruct like that of a Ford.When going through these vehicles in an effort to determine how they were last operated, the condition of the layers of burn debris is very important. Know if you are dealing with a locking steering column and know how that column is defeated by a thief--not a locksmith!  If the ignition lock is found on the carpet layer, it was removed before the fire. If found on the top layer below the glass, it was in its factory designed location in the steering column at the time of the fire. Commonly you can get lucky on the GM dash mounted locks. Since they are mounted in the plastic dash, the plastic actually protects them from fire damage. The plastic will melt around the electrical ignition switch/lock assembly and usually will be found by the gas pedal or on the driver's side of the floor hump. Follow the wires from where you know where it would have been mounted.In situations where it is dangerous to re-melt driver's floor debris due to emissions from burning plastic or re-ignition of fire damaged magnesium, it is recommended that these items be X-Rayed for steering column and lock components encapsulated in the fire debris. X-Ray may indicate where these components are located so that one can break apart the material to retrieve them for further forensic examination.Ignition Lock Components-BurnedIn the event that the ignition lock wafers are intact, but have a glazed coating on them from the fire, one needs to clean them because with the crust on the wafers, no striations can be observed. It is recommended that to attempt to remove this crusted debris, the wafers be boiled in water for approximately 5 minutes. The container should be drained in a tool such as a cooking callendar and ice water be poured on the wafers. All this should be done with video in the event an opposing expert needs to see your process of attempting to remove the crust from the wafers. Commonly the crust will commonly fall off the wafers leaving no new scratches and doing no damage and they can then be placed under a microscope for examination.Wear must be considered in the lock cylinder as well. If the vehicle has high mileage and the wafer lands are very worn; keep in mind that if the ignition lock was not put into the full LOCK position that the lock may be able to operate without a key at all. This scenario MUST be considered when dealing with the GM MRD/ PASS LOCK system that only needs the lock rotated in order for the engine to start.In order to rule out the possibility of extreme wear, once the wafers have been documented under a microscope with photographs and possibly video, you need to go farther by reassembling the ignition lock and inserting all known keys after they have been examined and documented. If the keys have a high degree of wear (Plating coming off exposing brass on key blade) insert the key. Place in RUN position. Can the key be removed in the ON position? This means that no damage needs to be incurred to operate the lock without a key. One very important note on this consideration: There is no damage from forcing, picking or tampering! Do not do something stupid like one situation I am aware of. Do not make a brand new key and destroy the possible tool marks that were last left in the lock and then expect it to pull out in the ON position! You are changing the equation by using a new key instead of the worn insured's key and expecting different results! Last operated with a key of the proper type This statement can bury you in court if you are using it. "Proper type" is a general statement and can mean a pick, a shaved key, a key close in cuts, a jiggle key or just about anything to rotate the ignition lock. If you completely disassemble the lock and examine it properly and eliminate all possible hypotheses you should be able to say definitively that the last time the ignition lock was rotated was with a key of exacting cuts coinciding with the ignition lock cylinder in the vehicle. You cannot make this statement and prove it, just by the mere use of inserting a scope into the ignition lock keyway. 

So-called factory "anti-theft" systems

These systems are very generalized and do not do what they are portrayed to do. They do not stop the theft of the vehicle. They only deter the thief and take more time to get the engine running. These are electronic systems which leave them vulnerable for failure and defeat. If you can defeat the system in a Ford F-150, you can defeat all Ford pick ups and SUVs.Some examiners in their reports quote right out of a service manual as to how these systems are supposed to work, not taking into consideration cloning (like in Valet situations), bypass for remote start or anything else that happens on the street and in real life to make these systems ineffective. For years the GM VATS (Vehicle Anti Theft System) was heralded as making the car "Unstealable." It was bypassed all the time, not by the thieves, but by the owners because the engine would not start because the wires from the ignition lock cylinder would break. The system was bypassed totally for the after market option of remote start. If you are examining these theft deterrent equipped vehicles, you better know everything about the system you are opining on!Transponder systems are electronic. These are the systems that have a computer chip in the key that matches with the vehicle's computer in order to enable the engine to start. As the examiner--it is your responsibility to know the specific system including its effectiveness or lack of effectiveness. There are questions the insurance client can ask of the insured to know if the system was working at the time of the theft. Do not assume!!!!! If you state you are not aware of how this system fails or can be bypassed and the opposing expert says he knows, it is your responsibility to your client to confirm or deny this information! Is it the insurance company's fault you have not stayed up to date on this ever changing valuable information?Origin and cause examinations-- You need to consult  with the insurance claims person as to the events leading up to the fire. Was the car driving down the road? Was the car parked for a period of time? Were there any after market accessories installed? Was the vehicle very recently serviced? What type of service? It is a good idea to look at a like kind un-burned vehicle before examining the one you are assigned. Take photos of the suspected area of cause. You can use these photos to show and compare where components were located on the vehicle before the fire. Never listen to the instructor that tells you 95% of all vehicle fires are arson. You need to ask him what his basis is over his opinion. Cars do start on fire by themselves as well! Go to on the internet. Do not just look for recalls. Look for consumer complaints and defect investigations. When you scroll down to the last items like electrical, under hood etc--use everything. Read the summaries! It may say "Fire--no" and you look at summary and it states vehicle burst into flames! Its time consuming research, but it commonly pays off like in the 1997 Olds Aurora where there was no recall, but 50 consumer complaints about the same problem with a high pressure fuel line breaking and spraying on the exhaust manifold starting the fire. Another situation was a Dodge Dakota that had 10 consumer complaints leaving the same signature of fire damage to the left front fender area under the hood at the power distribution box. GM had a terrible problem with the plastic high pressure fuel lines that after time became brittle and movement of other engine components, like that of a broken engine mount or changing a transmission would cause the fuel line to fracture, spaying fuel on hot exhaust, starting fires. Be very vigilant when examining a vehicle fire and don't assume. Is there an ignition source close to a combustible? When overloaded on hot days, trans fluid would spit up the filler tube on some vehicles pouring onto the exhaust manifold starting the fire.Determining Origin Because there are so many variables only the major points can be addressed here. A vehicle is a rolling fire just waiting to happen and when it does, it turns into a toxic waste dump. Going through burned vehicles is a true health hazard and in reality, but not practical in the summer a hazmat suit should be worn. Minimum--Kevlar gloves and a good carbon filter mask and glasses or goggles.No matter how burned--in most cases a passenger compartment initiated fire will leave radial burn patterns on the hood (if not destroyed by fire) and trunk emitting from the dash or rear parcel; shelf outward. If there is still glass in the windshield frame (Even a little) if the fire started in the passenger compartment, the upper portion of the windshield will go first. If the fire is from under the hood, it will burn the lower portion of the windshield first. Most burned vehicles still have fuel in their fuel tanks, even if made of plastic. Unless the fire started from under the vehicle because fire travels upward and outward, the bottom of the vehicle is usually safe from fire. Always remember that in order to use the scientific method, it must be able to have your theories be replicated by others in your field.If you have eliminated all accidental causes or see multiple points of origin, you must consider an incendiary fire (arson). Now there are preliminary ways of checking for an accelerant in the passenger compartment. This can be done with an accelerant testing powder. It can be placed on the suspect area of origin in the passenger compartment and it will turn different shades of blue telling you if it is gasoline, charcoal fluid etc. This is only preliminary! Then burned remains of glass should be sent to a lab preferably to a PHD and tests can be run for a hydro carbon test. Most examiners are not experts on accelerants and it is better to get an opinion from someone that is and include the hydrocarbon report with your report.Remember, the burn debris you remove is just that. It is not evidence until a court says it is. If you are to remove anything photograph and video tape. There are rare situations that I may remove a wiring harness or other important component, just to preserve it. These cases are rare, but when there is a question of a possible defect in a vehicle and a factory rep cannot be contacted in time and the vehicle is in an unsecured environment like a junkyard, everything including the removal of the harness with close ups (So nothing appears to be hidden) is video taped before, during and after removal. Report WritingSo often the examiner's opinion is confused with fact. It may be stated that because the $3,000 front end was not missing, the vehicle was not stolen. It all depends on what the thief wanted. This statement generalizes thieves and they can't be generalized. The motives for thefts are as numerous as the thieves. If you interview a convicted thief, you have a 50/50 chance he is telling you the truth. This too is how urban legends are started. If he got caught, he wasn't that good anyway. Many times you will hear an examiner state that a thief would never burn a car because it is like burning money. This statement assumes the thief needed all the parts. Maybe he just wanted specific parts. In Detroit there was a rash of new Jeep thefts. Always found the same place, always missing the wheels, tires, stereos and battery. Nothing else was missing. These were stolen by crack heads that would get $50 by unscrupulous body shops and junkyards. Thieves burn cars! Cars are burned because they were used in other crimes like drive by shootings. It seems to be assumed that since the insured reported the vehicle stolen and it is assumed that the column or lock were not compromised that the insured must have been the one that set the car on fire. Assumption is the mother of all screw ups! Gang bangers burn cars for initiation. As examiners we are to only give our opinions on the facts to the vehicle. That's it! We are not suppose to offer the opinion as to if the car was or was not stolen unless of course the examiner was party to the crime. Our job when determining how a vehicle was last operated is to be based only on the facts with our training, background and experience as it relates to the steering column, ignition lock and security system or if qualified the examination of a vehicle fire.Never make an absolute statement. Look at your report objectively and ask yourself; Could I attack this statement? Can I prove what I have stated? Did I leave anything out of the report that could make it ambiguous? Can another examiner replicate the process I have used? Are my personal opinions about the theft of the vehicle left out? Remember that unless you are a party to the crime, you as the examiner do not know if the vehicle was stolen and all you can state is how the vehicle last operated under it's own power. The Scientific method and how it relates to our forensic field and the courtsFirst--Do you know what the definition is for "Forensic"? There are many depending on the source, but here are two--(For the courts) and (Debate).How does this scientific method apply to determining the last operation of a reported stolen vehicle? All known hypotheses must be ruled out and eliminated until one fits. You as the examiner cannot state based on scientific certainty (although some firms lead you to believe they used the scientific method to arrive to their opinion) that the lock was last operated with a key of the "proper type" without removing and disassembling the lock and examining it under a microscope. This is assumption coupled with the general term "proper type." Proper type can be anything that can rotate the lock and if not transponder equipped like the GM PASS LOCK can be a pick, a key close in cut or in the case of extreme wear, no key at all. The assumption comes from just using a scope and not examining the lock components under a microscope and being able to eliminate all possible theories of last operation of the lock. Is the process used published and accepted in the Forensic community? Here it is!Can the process be replicated by another examiner?Have all known hypotheses been eliminated before reaching a conclusion? (how was that lock rotated last?) (Was the factory security system breached?) (Was the column defeated?) (Any outstanding keys?)Is there any type of error rating placed on the process for that specific type of vehicle?A little food for thought. With everything explained about the scientific (Forensic) process there are a couple of firms that claim to be able to tell the last key used. This process was considered proprietary (Secret). The question is then how can this process be forensic if it calls for debate? Although it may appear as though we are listing trade secrets here, we need to create the standards so everyone is on the same page. This information will most likely be used as fodder for opposing attorneys, but we need not be afraid of stating what we believe to be true. For too many years secret processes ruled this industry and although many guilty people were denied their claims and some convicted, we have to ask how many innocent people were effected here as well? How many did not get a complete and thorough examination (locksmiths only looking at the lock)? (Examiners only looking at the lock with a scope and not removing the lock for a full examination).CertificationsIt is so very important for the examiner to have the right certifications to qualify his opinions. If you a Certified Forensic Locksmith, technically that should only qualify one to testify on the lock and yet it is commonly stretched into the realm of auto theft. The only reason for this is because how do you start your car? With an ignition key. Who makes keys? Locksmiths. That must make them experts on theft right? Wrong! Locksmiths are great for servicing locks and keys. If I needed a key for my car, I would go to a good automotive locksmith.Ever see cars being stolen on TV by hot wiring? Did that have anything to do with the ignition lock? No! Its common since they are first thought of for locksmiths to look at a car as to how they would steal it. This may be by picking or forcing the lock. This may be by generating a transponder or other electronic key. The one luxury a thief does not have that the locksmith has--Time! It may take a locksmith two hours to generate an electronic key, but the thief better know how to either beat that system in minutes or he is going to get caught!In order to become a member of the International Association of Forensic Auto Theft Examiners you need to be of the finest in ethical values. Our association is not based on numbers, but more the quality of the individual. If he/she strives to be the best at what they do and can reach our rigid standards, you are more than welcome to be a member. Some organizations offer certifications and membership to anyone because they have turned their association into a business with less concern of quality.As a member, you are expected to work for anyone searching for the truth as to your opinion as to what happened related to the fire or the last operation of the vehicle. You are expected to be able to support your conclusions based on the scientific method. If you only present yourself to insurance companies and law enforcement and are too closed minded to work for anyone else, you need not apply.You are expected to constantly embark on new knowledge related to your field.Your are expected to learn from our courses and take and pass tests to become a Certified Forensic Auto Theft Examiner (a certification, which has been recognized in many courts).Now, we are not saying that you should not become a Certified Forensic Locksmith. In fact, we recommend that you do and we can give you details to becoming such, but what would you feel more confident in becoming? Someone that can only technically qualify on testifying on the lock or someone who has the training, background and experience on the total vehicle?  


© Copyright 2006 Robert Painter. All rights reserved.

Reprinted with permission of Robert Painter