Focus on Searches
Characteristics and Implications of Diversion Safes
By Megan C. Bolduc, M.A., M.S.
During investigations and other daily operations, law enforcement personnel frequently conduct extensive searches of individuals’ residences, offices, and other personal spaces when authorized by law. As a result, criminals strive to conceal illegal items in case of such a search, and they may hide this material inside containers known as “diversion safes.”
Manufacturers advertise diversion safes for their legal purpose—as a way to protect one’s valuables. However, diversion safes disguised as common household items also can provide criminals a convenient hiding place for incriminating items, such as narcotics, weapons, and cash. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) first reported on diversion safes in 1997, and the product lines have expanded even further since that time.
Law enforcement personnel must remain aware of the variety of safes available and the wide array of Internet and retail stores that sell them. This knowledge can help investigators identify the containers and, thus, discover illegal material that otherwise might have passed undetected through a routine search. Law enforcement personnel must become educated about the popularity of this diversion technique, the types and characteristics of available products, and the possible impact on officers’ efforts.
Diversion safe product lines have expanded significantly in recent years, and the number of Internet and retail outlets that sell these products also has increased. Both of these factors make it easier than ever for individuals to purchase the safes and, potentially, thwart investigations. Diversion safes are widely available from popular online retailers and in local home goods stores. They also are affordable, with prices ranging from just a few dollars up to $40.
Many diversion safes can appear as common household items. For example, weapons can be hidden in mantle clocks, drugs can be stowed cleverly in what appears to be a soda bottle, and money can fit inside of all sorts of canisters. Because these items are not common hiding places that officers search routinely, the illicit materials inside the safes may remain undetected.
Such safes are crafted to look and feel exactly like the products that they mimic. They also are weighted to feel like a normal object, so even if officers hold a safe, they will not discover the contents inside unless they examine the item closely and remove the top or bottom. Diversion safes come in many shapes and sizes and may be disguised as personal care products, household items, food, or beverages.
Many safes are exact replicas of the items they mimic because they are remanufactured from the original containers. For example, a soda can safe may be advertised as a realistic replica that feels full of liquid, does not open accidentally, and has a top that must be screwed on and off to access the inside. A water bottle safe may include real water, with the bottom filled with liquid and with a hidden area behind the label. Candle diversion safes may function as real candles and burn for up to 4 hours, which largely decreases suspicion of the item’s actual purpose.
Any individual could purchase a diversion safe for a legitimate purpose (e.g., to thwart potential thieves and conceal valuable possessions). As such, most safe manufacturers advertise their products as a repository for legal materials, such as jewelry or cash. Manufacturers named these containers diversion safes for this reason—they divert the attention of thieves and allow individuals to hide their valuables in plain sight. Manufacturers promote the safes’ effectiveness in preventing theft because criminals often are in a hurry and, therefore, likely will grab only the most visible valuables. Product descriptions may claim the containers hide anything the owner does not want found in the home, office, car, or dorm.
While diversion safes can serve a legitimate purpose for many customers, they also may attract the attention of criminals. Just as these products can fool thieves, they can divert police officers during a search, and dangerous items easily can be concealed in these containers. Because the manufacturers advertise that these products can hold anything people need to conceal, this suggests they can hide items, such as weapons and illegal narcotics, that if discovered would incriminate criminals.
“…diversion safes disguised as common household items also can provide criminals a convenient hiding place for incriminating items, such as narcotics, weapons, and cash.”
Drugs are popular items to hide. To this end, retailers may advertise the safes as a place to conceal legally prescribed drugs from thieves. While such advertisements may not discuss criminal activity, a product advertised as a discreet repository for drugs may garner interest from illegal narcotics users.
Manufacturers have created diversion safes to hide pills in small items, such as skateboard wheels, car cigarette lighters, and batteries. A pen diversion safe, available for only a few dollars, can hide money and prescription drugs discreetly while working as a fully functional pen. When the top unscrews, the pen reveals a hidden compartment and removable vial.
The illicit functions of diversion safes became more publicized in 2007 when a professional football player was suspected of attempting to smuggle marijuana through airport security. He arrived at the airport carrying a 20-ounce water bottle, which security personnel told him he could not carry to his gate. When Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners inspected the bottle more closely, they discovered that it actually was a diversion safe with a hidden compartment containing what apparently was marijuana. The compartment remained hidden by the bottle’s label so that it appeared to be a full bottle of water when held upright.1
Concealment in Vehicles
Diversion safes in vehicles pose additional risks for law enforcement. Because officers commonly discover incriminating items during roadside searches, many individuals hide drugs and other illegal items in their cars. To this end, diversion safes have become a popular method of concealment.
Many companies sell containers specifically created for vehicles, such as a safe that resembles a can of tire sealant or a thermal coffee mug. Because drivers commonly keep such products in a car, they do not draw officers’ attention during a search. These safes make it easier for criminals to transport illegal items in their vehicles without suspicion.
Implications for Law Enforcement
Many law enforcement duties involve searches of homes, offices, and vehicles. Diversion safes present an attractive option for criminals to keep their illegal items out of an officer’s sight, even during a search. Therefore, these safes can cause serious problems for law enforcement personnel if potential evidence remains concealed in what appear to be ordinary objects.
Diversion safes’ rising popularity and availability should cause officers even greater concern and motivate them to take extra care when they search suspects’ personal property. The fact that these safes look and feel exactly like the items they mimic, even if examined, makes them especially difficult for officers to spot. As such, officers may need to spend additional time when conducting searches to ensure that they thoroughly inspect all possible hiding places.
Because safe manufacturers advertise their products as a theft-prevention method, marketing materials may claim that law enforcement personnel endorse the products. They might even advertise that officers encourage homeowners to buy the safes.
Many websites post written instructions and videos to teach users how to make secret compartments out of household items, such as decks of cards, CD cases, mp3 players, and travel coffee cups. These instructional materials increase the availability and accessibility of safes, especially for juveniles. If individuals can make their own safes, they no longer have to spend money to purchase them or wait for them to be delivered. Such how-to videos teach criminals to cheaply and effectively hide items that may be of interest to law enforcement, particularly if they expect to undergo a search of their belongings and property.
Diversion safes also may attract juveniles who want to hide illegal items from their parents. To combat this, the Prevent Delinquency Project teaches parents strategies to spot diversion safes in their homes.2 The website informs parents about popular concealment tactics, such as the use of hollowed-out books, soda cans, and deodorant containers with secret compartments or false bottoms. Also, it warns that more recently, acquiring such items has become even easier for juveniles.3
The site provides valuable information on trends and news related to diversion safes to help educate parents; this same information can prove useful for law enforcement personnel. For example, the site discusses “stash” water bottles sold on the Internet and warns that parents often overlook them because the top and bottom sections of the bottles contain water. If parents and law enforcement personnel are aware of these creative tactics, they more successfully can prevent children from possessing dangerous items.
Undoubtedly, many people desire to conceal their possessions for any number of reasons. These instances can include teenagers hiding alcohol from their parents, homeowners safeguarding jewelry from potential thieves, or drug users storing marijuana in their vehicles. Diversion safes provide an attractive method of concealment for all of these groups. As such, the potential for the use of the safes is high. The vast array of companies and stores that offer these products, in addition to the large quantity and variety of safes available, demonstrates their popularity.
Despite their possible lawful functions, diversion safes in the hands of criminals can cause serious problems for law enforcement. Diversion safes can conceal contraband in homes, offices, vehicles, luggage, and other areas subject to search. If officers are not aware of these items, they may allow illicit materials to pass through a search undetected. Because these safes so closely resemble the items they mimic, officers must remain alert for common items that contain secret compartments. This may require longer and more comprehensive searches to ensure the officers examine all potential hiding places. Through increased awareness of this diversion technique, officers can identify criminal activity and uncover items of evidentiary value.
Questions, comments, or requests for additional information may be directed to the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s Criminal Operations and Investigations Support Division at MTACCrim@ncis.navy.mil.
Ms. Bolduc currently serves as a supervisory intelligence specialist with the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s Criminal Operations and Investigations Support Division.