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GET THE LOWDOWN ON THE LOCKSMITH YOU HIRE

The Better Business Bureau is warning consumers to be particularly careful when hiring a locksmith.

Complaints to the BBB reveal that several locksmiths are significantly overcharging consumers, charging for unnecessary services, using intimidation tactics and failing to give refunds or respond to consumer complaints.

"We've found that some locksmiths have made taking advantage of consumers' misfortune part of their business model," said Steve Cox, spokesman for the BBB System.

Some of these companies pose as local locksmiths in cities across the country. They advertise in the Yellow Pages, using local phone numbers and fake local addresses. While a customer may dial a number in the Tampa Bay area, she may actually be connected to a call center elsewhere.

Locksmiths are not regulated in Florida. Pat Sheehan, the president of Florida West Coast Locksmiths Association, a local professional organization based in Tampa, said his group has been working to bring a bill before the Legislature that would require licensing and regulation of the industry.

He was aware of some of the untrustworthy companies operating in the bay area.

Most of us don't need the services of a locksmith until an emergency occurs. But that doesn't mean we can't still take steps to protect ourselves.

Associated Locksmiths of America, an international organization of security professionals, offers these tips for detecting a suspect locksmith company:

- Make sure the company is familiar with your area. An out-of-state operator will not be.

- Unscrupulous individuals often operate under many business names. They must answer the phone with a generic phrase, such as "locksmith service." If the call is answered this way, ask for the legal name of the business.

- Carefully examine an ad in the Yellow Pages. Is the business name clear? Does it include the confusing statement "under same ownership"? Some states require this statement to prevent deceiving the public.

- Some legitimate locksmiths will work out of a car or unmarked van for quick jobs, but most will arrive in a service vehicle that is clearly marked.

A legitimate locksmith should ask for identity and some form of proof that you have the authority to allow the unlocking to be done. You have the right to ask for the locksmith's identification as well. Does it match the name on the service vehicle, invoice and business card?

- Find out what the work will cost before you authorize it. Never sign a blank form authorizing work.

- Insist on an itemized invoice. You can't dispute a charge without proof of how much you paid and what the payment was for.

Sheehan also had these suggestions:

- Have another person with you when you must call late at night or in a remote or unpopulated area. If you're calling from home, have a neighbor or relative with you. Intimidation is harder to inflict on multiple individuals.

- If a dispute develops over price once the locksmith is on-site and he or she threatens to call police, offer to do it yourself. A reputable professional will welcome intervention by law enforcement.

- Consumers may file a complaint with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for informal mediation by calling toll-free 1-800-435-7352.

- If you have been the victim of a phony locksmith whose contact information you received from the Internet, contact the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov.

Action solves problems and gets answers for you. Write Times Action, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or call, (727) 893-8171, or, outside of Pinellas, toll-free 1-800-333-7505, ext. 8171, to leave a recorded request. Complaints can only be accepted by mail. Send only photocopies of personal documents. Names of letter writers will not be omitted except in unusual circumstances. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

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