What do locksmiths do?

Like the name implies, a locksmith is a professional contractor who specializes in entry systems such as locks, door knobs and other security features. Once strictly tradesmen of all things related to locks, keys and safes, a modern locksmith may offer much more technologically advanced products such as closed-circuit TV monitoring systems, residential fire and burglar alarm systems, remote keyless entry fobs for cars and digital access systems.

For most homeowners, there are only a few life events that call for the services of a locksmith. The most common instances include when you're moving into a new home (or someone in the home is moving out) or when you've accidentally locked yourself out of your home or car.

In most cases, it's relatively easy to shop around for a locksmith when you need locks changed, but it may be a different story when the lockout requires emergency service. Before you're ever locked out of your home or vehicle, find a reputable locksmith you can trust. It's much easier to be taken advantage of when you're in need of quick help and at the mercy of the first locksmith you call.

Check reviews on Angie's List, rather than relying on a general Internet search. Call the company to get an estimate for their services before you agree to hire. Ask for details about their pricing and available hours. Do they have emergency hours? Do they charge for mileage or have service-call minimums?

Once you find a locksmith you're comfortable with, store that company's information in your purse, wallet, or cell phone — some place you're likely to have access to if locked out.

Tips for hiring a locksmith

A number of locksmith scams have cropped up over the years involving emergency lockout services. Often flooding Internet search engines with fraudulent local listings, these sham locksmiths often don't carry the licensing or credentials required.

The emergency locksmith scam often involves a locksmith insisting that a home's lock needs to be drilled out, rather than spending the time to open the lock without damaging it. Fraudulent locksmiths will also inflate the final bill and insist the customer pay in cash.

Follow these seven tips to help avoid a locksmith scam:

• Be wary of locksmith companies that answer calls with generic phrases like “locksmith services,” rather than a specific name. If a locksmith cannot or will not provide the business’ legal name, find another locksmith.

• When the locksmith arrives, ask for identification, including a locksmith license where applicable. Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas all require locksmiths to be licensed.

• Get an estimate before any work begins, including emergency service.

• Ask about extra charges for things like emergency hours, mileage or service call minimums before you agree to have the work performed.

• If the locksmith’s on-site price doesn’t match the phone estimate, don’t allow the work to be performed.

• Most legitimate locksmiths will arrive in a clearly marked vehicle.

• If you’re locked out, be cautious of companies that recommend or insist on drilling or replacing the lock upfront. Most experienced locksmiths have the skills and tools to unlock almost any door.

A deadbolt lock and keys

Highly-rated, reputable locksmiths can copy keys for your home and car. (Photo by Frank Espich)

How to avoid a fraudulent locksmith

Plenty of scammers and unskilled locksmiths are waiting to take advantage of customers who are locked out and need their homes and cars unlocked quickly. These illegitimate locksmiths will quote low prices, usually between $15 and $40, then claim the job will cost hundreds more after they arrive. They may claim that you have a high security lock that needs to be drilled. Or they might replace what they claim is an obsolete lock with a piece of junk that offers no protection.

The best way to avoid hiring a crooked or unskilled locksmith is to research a prospective locksmith before you hire them. Ask detailed questions about the services they provide and what they charge. Also check reviews and visit their business location to ensure it actually exists.

Out-of-state call centers

Not all local locksmiths are local. An online search for a local locksmith near you might turn up dozens of results, but chances are these results also include contact information for out-of-state call centers. These call centers typically use unskilled locksmiths who hike the price for their services and perform questionable work.

To avoid hiring a call center locksmith, research the business ahead of time. Check out the company's location. If you speak to someone on the phone, ask these questions:

• Where are you located?
• How will you get into the house? Will you need to drill my lock? Can you tell me the exact process?
• Do you need a picture of the lock?
• Can you give me an estimate? What factors will cause this price to change?
• Do you require cash, or can I pay with a check or credit card?
• What’s the name of the locksmith who will be coming?

If they can’t answer these questions directly, don't hire them.

How to avoid a lockout

We asked locksmiths for their best consumer advice on how to avoid a lockout situation, which can easily cost from $50 to $100, depending on the time, location and particular situation. Check out these tips to save yourself from the frustration of a home lockout: 

• Hide a key somewhere on the outside of your house. Exercise extreme caution when doing this, however, because if an intruder finds it, they'll gain entry easily. Some locksmiths recommend placing the key in a plastic container and burying it under a rock or other object in the yard where it will unlikely be found.

• Give an extra house or car key to someone nearby whom you trust. Giving a key to a reliable friend, family member or neighbor can be a lifesaver in a pinch.

• Make a spare key and hide it in your wallet or purse. Hopefully, you won't be unfortunate enough to be without both your keys and your purse or wallet.

• If you find yourself frequently locked out of your home, consider installing a digital keypad door knob system. Using a push-button interface, you can simply enter your personal code to unlock the door. But be careful with those numbers, your home's security is only as trustworthy as the people who know your access code.

Tips to maintain locks

Exterior door locks can and do eventually wear out or become infiltrated with dirt and grime, which can cause the locks to become frozen or stiff, or keys to become stuck. Follow these tips to avoid a sticking lock.

1. Find a product

You can find lock-lubricating products such as graphite powders or Teflon-containing sprays at retail hardware stores. If you’re not sure which product to purchase, call a highly rated local locksmith and ask for their advice.

Some locksmiths advise against using all-purpose lubricants like WD-40 because they can eventually evaporate into a residue that attracts more dirt and grime.

2. Spray it in

Whether it’s a dry powder or liquid-based product, always follow the label instructions and warnings. Most products will direct you to place a nozzle or tube into the keyhole and spray the product, getting as much into the interior lock mechanism as possible.

You’ll need a cleaning rag or paper towel handy to clean up any overspray or runoff.

3. Give it a whirl

If the lock is in a door handle, turn the handle back and forth several times and flip the interior lock several times, locking and unlocking the door. Do the same with a dead bolt lock. This ensures the lubricant reaches all of the moving parts within the lock.

4. Clean it up

Clean up any overspray or runoff from spraying the lock lubricant, including wiping down the exterior of the doorknob or dead bolt itself. To keep your lock or door handle maintained, clean it at least once a year.

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