Dear Dr. Gridlock:

When I read the letter from M.N. Holmes of Arlington in your June 14 column, I felt I had to respond. Your correspondent had been approached on the street by a stranger offering to fix a car dent, and wondered what to do.

A month ago my wife was approached by one of these people, and she told him to see me at home when I got off work. The guy said he would fix the dent in my car and if I was happy with the work, I could pay him. If I wasn't happy, I didn't have to pay him.

Like a fool I agreed, thinking I couldn't lose.

He began the work but said he would need to come back the next day with his other tools. He asked what time I got home from work, which seemed an innocent question at the time.

When he finished work I told him I would pay him but didn't want him working on my wife's car because I thought he did poor work.

Two days later he returned and pleaded for me to let him show he could do quality work. After going back and forth, I told him he could do the work, but if the car did not look new, I would not pay him.

He did the work and I told him I would not pay him. He asked if I would write him a letter just stating that he had done the work. I wasn't going to, but told him I'd think about it.

A day later, while my wife and I were at work, our house was broken into and all of my wife's fine jewelry was stolen.

I called the police and gave them this man's cell phone and license plate number.

A week later this man returned to our home just as I was coming home from work. I jumped out of my car screaming at him that I knew he had broken into my house, and that I was calling the police. He said to go ahead. The police showed up five minutes later, pulled the man out of his car and patted him down. In his pocket was a jeweler's eyeglass. They had no grounds to arrest him, but got a set of fingerprints for their files.

The police say that possibly this man was casing my house, and someone else did the break-in.

A week later I got a call from police saying this man had pawned a diamond ring and two gold watches in Northern Virginia. None of the items belonged to my wife.

Please tell your readers never to hire these people. Any work that is worth having done should be done by a professional.

Andrew Rice

Bethesda

What a sad story. Thanks for being brave enough to share it. There's more. Please read on.

Seeing Is Not Believing

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I had to chuckle after reading of the offer to repair a dent on the spot. My advice is not to do it.

When I lived on Long Island, there was a scam where a couple of professional-looking guys would knock on your door and offer to fix your dents for a great price. The initial results did look good--the dents were gone and filled with a primer ready to paint.

The only problem: The scam artists were filling the dents with quick-drying plaster of Paris! The first time it rained, or you hit a bump, it was goodbye body repair!

You'd better know what you're getting into before you fork over your hard-earned cash.

Chuck Jacobi

Burke

A Satisfied Customer

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

About a year ago, I was approached by an auto body man in a Giant parking lot in Arlington. My scam antennae are flawless, and the man's price was far below any quote I got from BMW specialists AND I didn't have to pay him a thing if I wasn't satisfied with the job.

I lost a couple hours while the dents were hammered out and repainted, but he did a decent job and I am still satisfied to this day.

If a free-lance body man can snag one customer a day, he can earn more than he would as a salaried employee in a regular shop.

Dan Traub

Washington

Out to Get You

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Many years ago I needed a dent repaired and fell for the scam. The deal was that they would fill the dent and partially smooth down the body putty, and I would simply take it to a body shop for final smoothing and painting.

I was suspicious it might be too good to be true, but my desire for a good deal got the better of me. I soon learned it was too good to be true.

Shortly after my "repairmen" left, I decided to ask Montgomery County police about it. They knew about this scam and said that it was very unlikely these people were licensed and therefore they would be conducting business illegally.

The body shop said that I had wasted my money. The putty put over my dents would not hold. If I brought my car in they would have to undo everything the curbside people had done.

I immediately called my bank and stopped payment on the check. Moments later, I got a call from my curbside entrepreneur asking why I stopped the check. When I told him he was outraged and threatened to come over that night to collect. He never showed.

Harvey Eisen

Bethesda

Cheap Fix a Deep Hit

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I agreed to let a man fix a dent in my hood while living in Los Angeles in 1996. I had just graduated from college and I was poor, so I thought the $100 repair charge would be a steal.

The man used some kind of long, steel instrument to poke three holes into the dent in my hood, and pulled the dent out. He then covered the holes with some kind of plastic material and told me that the holes would seal overnight. Gullible me.

The holes didn't seal and became unfilled when I took my car to the car wash. I drove around L.A. for a year with the holes, while friends and strangers continued to ask me if I had been shot at while driving.

Finally, I had the dent and the holes repaired at a body shop for $700. The lesson I learned was that if you can't afford to get it done right, WAIT until you can.

Shannon Bush

Washington

The mail is running about 4 to 1 against hiring a body repairman off the street. I've brushed aside such offers in the past, knowing that if a reputable firm didn't do a satisfactory job, at least I had an appeal. It's that vs. these street people who appear and disappear.

I'll present more letters on this subject in my column later this week.

Learn a Little German

Here's the answer to our last license plate riddle. We asked what kind of car has the plate R PFERD. The R is for Our and PFERD is German for horse. The plate appeared on a Ford Mustang.

Ready for a new one? What kind of vehicle has the license plate PENNY LN?

Hint: It's not a Volkswagen.

Dr. Gridlock's assistant, Jessica Medinger, contributed to this column.

Dr. Gridlock appears Monday in the Metro section and on Wednesday or Thursday in the Weekly and Extra sections. You can write to Dr. Gridlock, P.O. Box 3467, Fairfax, Va. 22038-3467, or e-mail him at drgridlock@washpost.com. The Doctor's fax number is 703-352-3908. Please include your full name, address and day and evening phone numbers.

Springfield Interchange Update

Monday through Wednesday:

1. From 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the right lane leading to the ramp on Old Keene Mill Road will be closed on southbound Interstate-95 between Interstate-495 and Commerce Street in order to drive piles for pier 1 of Commerce Street Bridge.

2. From 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., one lane will be closed on Old Keene Mill Road between Backlick Road and Bland Street for relocation of cable.

Monday through Thursday:

3. From 9:30 p.m. to 5 a.m., one lane in each direction will be closed on Franconia Road between Loisdale Road and Backlick Road for placement of beams.

4. From 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.(and Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to noon), the left lane of Franconia Road will be closed between Loisdale Road and Backlick Road in preparation for placement of beams.

Until winter 2001:

5. The Old Keene Mill Road (Route 644) ramp to southbound I-95 will be closed for the construction of new ramps to both northbound and southbound I-95. VDOT has posted detour signs to send traffic south on Backlick Road for 2.5 miles to enter I-95 at Newington. Motorists also can take Rolling Road south, turn left on Alban Road and drive north for 1A miles until they see signs for I-95.

For updates on lane closures, check www.springfieldinterchange.com or call toll-free 1-877-95-95-222 to reach VDOT information operators.

SOURCE: Virginia Department of Transportation