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Locksmith

‘Remember when all you needed was a coat hanger you could slide over the window?” asked Patrick as he stared into our locked car at his keys dangling in the ignition. “You’d loop it down, catch the door lock, pop it up, and be on your way. Gad, I’m old.”

Will Umbanhower of A&A Lock & Key (619-255-9906, loknkey.com) is a licensed locksmith with 11 years under his belt and a truckload of tools. He can work on many kinds of locks, but autos and motorcycles are his specialty. “That’s what I enjoy,” he explains. “I’m kind of obsessed with what I do, and I like to have the latest of everything. I have specialized lockout tools that are, in most cases, specific to the car. Other locksmiths will have one or two tools, and it will take them longer to get in — or they won’t be able to do it at all. Especially if it’s a high-security car like a Mercedes or a BMW.” (Umbanhower, on the other hand, says he can get into “any car except the new Corvette. I haven’t figured that one out yet. It’s completely electronic — there’s no keyhole.”)

Both Mercedes and BMW, he explains, “have high-tech, almost non-pickable locks that are made overseas. They use a square key, with the teeth going down the center instead of on the outside. I can get into a Mercedes in 20 minutes, where it might take a less-skilled guy an hour.” But because it’s specialized work requiring specialized tools, the price goes up accordingly. “The cost to open a regular car during business hours ranges from $60 to $100, whereas a high-security car will cost $200 to $250. The price goes up after business hours.”

Things get trickier when your key is gone, baby, gone. “Every key has a combination,” says Umbanhower. “That’s what those cuts in the key are. I have to find out what the depths of those cuts were to decode the combination. You can take a lock out of a car, take it completely apart, and decode the combination — but that takes forever. I have a lot of tools — scopes and things — to help me, but they just give you a ballpark notion of the combination. The skill comes in making impressions on the blank key and filing it down until the key fits.”

Basic keys for domestic cars run $100–$200, but a lot of newer keys aren’t basic. “In 1986, the Chevy Corvette introduced the VAT key — that stands for ‘vehicle anti-theft.’ There was a computer chip inside the blade of the key that activated the car’s fuel and electronic systems.” These days, transponder keys — also known as smart keys — have a computer chip in the bow of the key. When you turn the key in the ignition, a coil around the ignition sends a signal to the key, looking for an electronic response. “If it’s the correct key, the car will start. Otherwise, it won’t. So, when I make a transponder key, I not only have to make the right cuts, I have to put the right chip in and do the programming with the car’s computer. So it takes twice as long. Transponder and VAT keys can run $160 to $400. And with the newer Mercedes and BMW, it can cost $1000, and nobody wants to pay that, so I don’t do them.”

Umbanhower likes that he can get into cars and get motorcycles started without yanking them apart. But, he warns, not all locksmiths have the same M.O. “About 30 percent of the locksmiths in San Diego now are illegal,” he says. “They’re not licensed. They’ll tell you one price over the phone and then muscle you for more money when they make the key.” And the trouble extends to the actual work done. “If a locksmith brings out a drill, for any reason, tell them to stop, and if they won’t stop, call the police. They’ll tell you it’s a special, unpickable lock. It’s not: 99 out of 100 locks are pickable. The problem is, they’re not locksmiths — they don’t have the training. Can you imagine having a Lexus, and some guy shoves a drill through the lock? He just cost you $1000. Ask to see their license before they do any work.”

Another licensed locksmith: San Diego Lock & Safe, 619-757-5559. Car unlocking, $85–$125, depending on time of day; higher rates for high-security cars. Key replacement: $185–$245 regular, $245–$295 transponder; higher rates on nights and Saturdays.

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‘Remember when all you needed was a coat hanger you could slide over the window?” asked Patrick as he stared into our locked car at his keys dangling in the ignition. “You’d loop it down, catch the door lock, pop it up, and be on your way. Gad, I’m old.”

Will Umbanhower of A&A Lock & Key (619-255-9906, loknkey.com) is a licensed locksmith with 11 years under his belt and a truckload of tools. He can work on many kinds of locks, but autos and motorcycles are his specialty. “That’s what I enjoy,” he explains. “I’m kind of obsessed with what I do, and I like to have the latest of everything. I have specialized lockout tools that are, in most cases, specific to the car. Other locksmiths will have one or two tools, and it will take them longer to get in — or they won’t be able to do it at all. Especially if it’s a high-security car like a Mercedes or a BMW.” (Umbanhower, on the other hand, says he can get into “any car except the new Corvette. I haven’t figured that one out yet. It’s completely electronic — there’s no keyhole.”)

Both Mercedes and BMW, he explains, “have high-tech, almost non-pickable locks that are made overseas. They use a square key, with the teeth going down the center instead of on the outside. I can get into a Mercedes in 20 minutes, where it might take a less-skilled guy an hour.” But because it’s specialized work requiring specialized tools, the price goes up accordingly. “The cost to open a regular car during business hours ranges from $60 to $100, whereas a high-security car will cost $200 to $250. The price goes up after business hours.”

Things get trickier when your key is gone, baby, gone. “Every key has a combination,” says Umbanhower. “That’s what those cuts in the key are. I have to find out what the depths of those cuts were to decode the combination. You can take a lock out of a car, take it completely apart, and decode the combination — but that takes forever. I have a lot of tools — scopes and things — to help me, but they just give you a ballpark notion of the combination. The skill comes in making impressions on the blank key and filing it down until the key fits.”

Basic keys for domestic cars run $100–$200, but a lot of newer keys aren’t basic. “In 1986, the Chevy Corvette introduced the VAT key — that stands for ‘vehicle anti-theft.’ There was a computer chip inside the blade of the key that activated the car’s fuel and electronic systems.” These days, transponder keys — also known as smart keys — have a computer chip in the bow of the key. When you turn the key in the ignition, a coil around the ignition sends a signal to the key, looking for an electronic response. “If it’s the correct key, the car will start. Otherwise, it won’t. So, when I make a transponder key, I not only have to make the right cuts, I have to put the right chip in and do the programming with the car’s computer. So it takes twice as long. Transponder and VAT keys can run $160 to $400. And with the newer Mercedes and BMW, it can cost $1000, and nobody wants to pay that, so I don’t do them.”

Umbanhower likes that he can get into cars and get motorcycles started without yanking them apart. But, he warns, not all locksmiths have the same M.O. “About 30 percent of the locksmiths in San Diego now are illegal,” he says. “They’re not licensed. They’ll tell you one price over the phone and then muscle you for more money when they make the key.” And the trouble extends to the actual work done. “If a locksmith brings out a drill, for any reason, tell them to stop, and if they won’t stop, call the police. They’ll tell you it’s a special, unpickable lock. It’s not: 99 out of 100 locks are pickable. The problem is, they’re not locksmiths — they don’t have the training. Can you imagine having a Lexus, and some guy shoves a drill through the lock? He just cost you $1000. Ask to see their license before they do any work.”

Another licensed locksmith: San Diego Lock & Safe, 619-757-5559. Car unlocking, $85–$125, depending on time of day; higher rates for high-security cars. Key replacement: $185–$245 regular, $245–$295 transponder; higher rates on nights and Saturdays.

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