Eight Tips to Improve Control over Unit Keys, Reduce Liability

It’s essential to keep keys on hand so that you can enter your site’s units in an emergency. But you’re asking for trouble if you don’t keep careful track of the keys you have for this purpose. An intruder might get hold of a unit key and use it to commit a crime, such as robbery or assault, in the unit. And a court might find you liable for that crime.

It’s essential to keep keys on hand so that you can enter your site’s units in an emergency. But you’re asking for trouble if you don’t keep careful track of the keys you have for this purpose. An intruder might get hold of a unit key and use it to commit a crime, such as robbery or assault, in the unit. And a court might find you liable for that crime.

    To protect your residents and your site, you should institute a key control system that limits access to unit keys and monitors who gets them, says crime prevention consultant Chris McGoey. We’ll give you eight tips to help you tighten your site’s control over unit keys. We’ll also give you a Model Form: Track Access to Keys at Your Site, which you can adapt and use to help you track unit keys.

Tip #1: Switch from Master to Duplicate Key System

If you’re currently using a master key system, switch to a duplicate key system, advises security consultant and attorney Jon Groussman. In a master key system, management typically has a “master key” that opens all the doors at the site, and residents have individual keys to their units. With a duplicative key system, each resident gets a key to his unit and management has a back-up key to each unit, explains McGoey.

     A master key system is a problem if someone finds or steals a master key, because that person will have access to all the units at your site without accountability, McGoey points out. To make the site secure, you’ll need to change all the locks at the site, says McGoey. And that’s expensive and time-consuming. On the other hand, if a key in the duplicative key system is lost or stolen, only one unit is affected.

     If your site is still using a master key system and a master key is lost or stolen, change all the locks for the unit doors, advises Groussman. If you don’t, you’re putting residents at risk and opening the site to significant liability if a resident gets hurt or his property gets lost or damaged as a result, he points out.

Tip #2: Code and Tag Unit Keys

“Code” your site’s unit keys, advises McGoey. That means assign a series of unique letters or numbers (or a combination of both) to each unit key. Then tag each key using the code ID instead of the unit number. That way, if you lose a unit key, the unit won’t be identifiable from the key.

     Also, create a key legend so you can decipher the code ID and quickly find the key you need. In the key legend, give the unit number with the matching code ID. Here’s an example of a key legend.

Key Legend

Unit #        Code ID

Unit 1A       Z1

Unit 1B       T3

     Note that the code IDs above are random. If you follow a pattern when assigning code IDs, the code may be easily cracked. Here’s an example of what not to do:

Key Legend

Unit #         Code ID

Unit 1A        3B

Unit 2B        6C

Unit 4D        12E

     In the legend above, the pattern for the code is the unit number times three and the letter after the unit letter.

Tip #3: Store Keys in Lockable Room or Box, Separate from Legend

Store unit keys in a lockable room (such as a site manager’s office) or a lockable closet or cabinet, advises McGoey. And don’t store the key legend with the unit keys. The legend should be in a separate place. Then, even if an unauthorized person manages to get access to the keys, he won’t know which units they’re for, explains Groussman.

Tip #4: Set Policies to Limit Access to Unit Keys

Set a few easy policies to limit who has access to unit keys at your site. Having these policies can go a long way to increasing your control over your unit keys:

     Run background checks before allowing staff to take keys. Many sites conduct criminal background checks on staff members before hiring them. This is a good practice, but if you don’t do this, have a policy of running a criminal background check on staff members before giving them access to unit keys, says McGoey. If you give a unit key to a staff member with a criminal background, the site could be held liable for misuse of a unit key, says McGoey.

     If you don’t perform criminal background checks on temporary employees, don’t give them access to unit keys. Also, periodically re-screen employees you’ve previously cleared to take unit keys. For example, you could do this annually or biannually.

     Bar staff from taking unit keys home. Make it a policy that staff members with access to keys can’t take them home. Permitting staff members to take unit keys home at the end of the day increases the odds that a unit key will be lost, stolen, or duplicated.

     Don’t give unit keys to outside contractors and vendors. Whenever possible, make it a policy not to give unit keys to contractors and vendors, says McGoey. Chances are you don’t know a lot about contractors or vendors who come to the site, so entrusting them with unit keys can be dangerous. When contractors and vendors need to work in a unit, have a site staff member unlock the unit door for them and relock it after they leave.

     If you must give a contractor or vendor a unit key, record the transaction in a log book. Also, keep the contractor’s or vendor’s driver’s license as security, advises Groussman. That way, the contractor or vendor isn’t likely to forget to return the unit key at the end of the workday, he notes.

     It’s okay to give a key to a vacant unit to a contractor or vendor who’s doing a lot of work in that unit, says McGoey. But change the lock after the work is done.

Tip #5: Visually Scan Keys Each Day

Visually scan unit keys every day to make sure none are missing, suggests McGoey. The easiest way to do this is to have the same number of unit keys (preferably one or two) on each key hook, explains McGoey. That way, you can quickly scan the unit keys on their hooks to make sure that they’re all there. If you have 10 unit keys on one hook, three on another and one on a third, you won’t be able to quickly tell if one is missing, he explains.

Tip #6: Change Locks on Turnover and When Security Compromised

A resident’s security may be compromised in the following situations. So our experts recommend changing a unit’s lock in these situations:

     Unit turnover. Residents often take keys to their units with them when they move out. If those keys still work, they or whoever has them will be able to get into the new resident’s unit.

     Stolen or lost keys. Lost or stolen unit keys can open unit doors, particularly if the unit is in any way identifiable from the key.

     Report of unforced entry. This suggests that a key was used to enter the unit.

     Domestic dispute, depending on certain factors. A resident may ask you to change the locks to protect her from a family member, such as a spouse or partner.

     In this last situation, what you do will depend on several factors, explains Groussman. If the resident asks you to change the lock to keep out someone who’s on the lease or a member of the resident’s household, change the lock only if a court has issued a restraining order, explains Groussman. And before changing the lock, talk to your attorney about what the restraining order says and what your state law requires. If the resident asks you to change the lock to keep out someone who’s not on the lease or a member of the resident’s household, change the lock, says Groussman.

     Also, take care to safeguard keys to site entrances, site administrative offices, and on-site maintenance and storage rooms. Many of the tips discussed above also will apply to these site keys. For example, you can code site keys, store them with your unit keys in a lockable room or box, track transactions with them in your key log, and so on.

Tip #7: Use Key Log

Use a key log to keep track of unit keys. If your site’s control over its unit keys is questioned in a lawsuit (for example, a resident claims that a burglar used a duplicate unit key lost by your staff to illegally enter his unit), the log can help you show that you carefully kept track of unit keys. This could help you avoid liability. Your log, like our model key log, should be divided into the following five columns:

     Person with key. In the first column, record the first and last name of each person to whom you give a unit key.

     Key ID. In this column, fill in the code of the unit key you give to the person.

     Time out. Use this column to record the time you gave the unit key to the person.

     Time in. In this column, record the time the person returned the unit key.

     Reason. In this column, give the reason you’re giving the unit key to the person.

Tip #8: Keep Key Log Neat and Complete

Make sure that the key log is carefully kept and has complete entries. A messy or incomplete key log won’t help your site if it’s sued. In fact, an attorney can use that messy or incomplete key log against you, says Groussman. So take these steps to keep your key log in order:

     Designate one person to fill out log and issue keys. Pick one person, such as an assistant site manager, to fill out the key log and issue unit keys, advises Groussman. Explain to her that she’s responsible for keeping the key log legible and complete. This accountability should help ensure that your key log is kept organized and that access to keys is controlled.

     Check daily for returned keys. At the end of each day, check the key log and make sure that all unit keys that were taken out have been returned, advises McGoey. If a unit key hasn’t been returned, contact the person who has it and ask for its return. If some staff members repeatedly don’t return unit keys by the end of the day, take steps to train them to do so, says McGoey.

Insider Sources

Jon Groussman, J.D.: President and COO, Cap Index, Inc., 150 John Robert Thomas Dr., Exton, PA 19341; www.capindex.com.

Chris McGoey: President, McGoey Security Consulting, 40960 California Oaks Rd., Murrieta, CA 92562; www.crimedoctor.com.

See The Model Tools For This Article

Track Access to Keys at Your Site