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posted: 6/20/2014 12:01 AM

Tips to find a 'legit' locksmith

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More than 50 million people need the help of a locksmith each year, but many become easy pickings for thieves who pose as hardware pros.

Q. I hope you will warn your readers about a fraud that victimized me. I recently called a locksmith to change the locks on my home, only to come home a week later to find that all of my valuables had been stolen. When I called the police department, I was told that there are a lot of thieves out there who represent themselves as "professional locksmiths" but then make an extra key when they change the lock so that they can come back and rob you later. The cops called the guy's phone number, but it was disconnected, so they checked the address on the business card he gave me and found that it doesn't exist. I am insured, but I still have to pay my $1,000 insurance deductible and have forever lost my grandmother's wedding ring and all of my other family heirlooms!

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A. I'm so sorry, both for your financial loss and, perhaps worse, your grandma's ring and other heirlooms with emotional value that a reimbursement check from an insurer can never replace.

More than 50 million real estate and car owners call a locksmith each year to change or pick a lock, according to the Dallas-based Associated Locksmiths of America. The trade group, commonly referred to as ALOA (www.aloa.org, 214-819-9733), represents and provides referrals for about 6,000 locksmiths nationwide who have passed a certification exam and a criminal-background check.

I don't know how you found your locksmith. But according to Jim Hancock, an executive at ALOA, "The vast majority of locksmiths with a 'toll-free' number are not legitimate. You're [instead] phoning a telephone-call center that's going to give you an ultralow price, maybe $20 or so, for some guy who's going to show up and tell you that there are 'complications' that will cost you hundreds of dollars more.

"If that happens, tell the guy to leave," Hancock says. "He's probably trying to rip you off."

Other tips: Be wary of a locksmith who arrives in an unmarked van, truck or car. Most legitimate pros put the name of their company on their vehicle, Hancock says, in part because it's free advertising. Also get a written estimate, on the company's letterhead, with mileage and other add-on fees before agreeing to an on-site service call: Few hucksters will go through the trouble to send the paperwork.

Also, if you have simply lost your key but are told that the lock must be drilled-out and replaced, Hancock says you should send the guy packing and look for a different hardware pro. "A legitimate, experienced locksmith can unlock or re-key almost any lock -- even the latest high-tech ones -- without replacing the entire unit."

Q. I was interested in the columns you wrote recently about real estate auctions, and I plan to go to one that will be held in my area next month. The TV commercial for the event keeps repeating that it will be an "absolute" auction. What does this mean?

A. An "absolute" auction is different from a typical auction.

In most auction sales, the seller has the right to pull the property off the sales block if the bids are too low. But in an "absolute" auction, the property owner is usually required to sell even if the bids are less than expected.

The catch: Even in an absolute auction, the seller often is allowed to set a minimum level at which bidding must start. If no one bids more than the minimum, the owner can yank it off the sales block.

Q. My husband and I are angry and confused. We got a $190,000 mortgage to buy our new house in March and closed the deal in May, but now two different retailers have said we can't get a $3,000 loan to buy a new refrigerator and some small furniture. The bank loaned us $190,000 to buy our house, so why can't we get the $3,000 needed for a new fridge and sofa?

A. There are probably two reasons why you can't get the loan for your new refrigerator and furniture.

First, stuff like a fridge or a couch are hard for a retailer to repossess. The legal fees alone wouldn't offset the cost of taking them back. So, they don't want to finance the purchase unless the buyers can prove that they will have the money to repay.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that your new mortgage represents a large amount of debt. Potential creditors will want to see how well you can handle those payments before providing an additional loan for a new appliance or furniture.

Don't worry. If you make your new mortgage payments promptly, you probably won't have any trouble getting the financing for new household items, say, three to six months from now.

Real estate trivia: The earliest known lock-and-key device was discovered in the ruins of Nineveh, a once-thriving city in present-day Iraq, which sprang to life about 8,000 years ago but later was sacked by a group of Arabian invaders.

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers/Trust, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

© 2014, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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