Car owners could pay a bundle if special keys need replacing

Car owners could pay a bundle if special keys need replacing

Absent-minded drivers beware: Losing your keys could cost you as much as $3,000. A transponder-based anti-theft system in newer vehicles is backfiring on owners and auto dealers who discover that getting copies or replacement keys isn't easy or cheap. The system uses keys with computer chips, embedded in the plastic head casing, that emit a signal to the car's computer system when placed in the ignition. The computer compares the signal to the one in its memory, and allows the car to start only if it matches.

The transponder system gained in popularity in the 1999 model year, when roughly 9 million of the 17 million cars sold had the systems. Some insurance companies consider it one of the most effective security measures available, and some offer extra discounts to drivers who have them.

The problem is, most owners don't know their cars have the systems -- until they are stuck with the bill. Duplicating a key could cost $35 to $225, if the owner has an original key. Even worse, if the original key is unavailable and the computer module must be replaced, the owner could face a charge of up to $3,000.

"These aren't the keys you can run out to your local hardware store for," said Tom Seroogy of Lockmasters of Nicholasville, Ky. "When people find out how much it's going to cost to get another key made, they're in shock." Seroogy said Lockmasters sells equipment for reprogramming computer systems and replacing and duplicating keys, and trains locksmiths to use the equipment.

The equipment, he said, is sold only to professional locksmiths, and it can be costly. Each car manufacturer makes a separate diagnostic system for programming keys for its models. The tool for Ford models runs about $2,000, the Chrysler tool is about $1,000, the Mitsubishi tool is $3,500, and the Nissan unit costs up to $6,500, Seroogy said.

More locksmiths are expected to buy the equipment as transponder systems become more popular, said Stephen Fish, manager of the transponder product line at Kaba Ilco Corp. in Rocky Mount, N.C., the world's largest manufacturer of replacement key blanks. Fish said the systems are in some of the top-selling vehicles in the United States, including the Toyota Camry, the Honda Civic and Accord and the Ford F150 pickup. About 50 million of the roughly 200 million vehicles on U.S. roads have manufacturer-installed transponder systems.

Some automakers, like Toyota, have changed their transponder systems to make it possible to reprogram the computer modules of newer models, said John Hanson, national manager of product news for Toyota. Reprogramming costs roughly $650, compared with up about $1,000 to replace the module. In addition, for customers who lose their keys, Toyota will absorb the cost of replacing the computer modules if the customer pays for the keys and labor. That deal applies to 1998, 1999 and 2000 models that don't have reprogrammable modules.

Pat Kelly, co-owner of Pop-A-Lock in Lexington, Ky., advises people to consult with dealers and auto insurance companies about possible complications with replacing or copying keys. People who buy used cars are especially urged to find out whether they have transponder systems. "You should add that to your checklist, right up there with whether the car has anti-lock brakes," he said. "You should also negotiate with the dealer to see if the dealer will supply you with an extra key or two with the car."

Adam Simon, a salesman with Enterprise Car Sales, said the dealership provides extra keys to buyers of cars that have transponder systems and explains how the systems work. "The worst thing is to lose it and not know how much it's going to cost," Simon said. "Most people would be a lot more careful if they knew about it."

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