Locked out? How to avoid a locksmith scam
Be prepared to avoid getting scammed if you get locked out. (Photo by Jay Madden)
Imagine your front door lock has been working improperly and you finally decide to get it repaired. You scan the phone book and find a locksmith that appears local.
The company gives you a reasonable estimate, but after completing the job, two technicians who arrived in an unmarked car present you with a bill for many times the quoted price and demand cash payment.
It may sound outrageous, but that's exactly what Laura Gold of West Newton, Mass., says happened to her.
Locksmith scams plague consumers nationwide
It's similar to scams that have befallen consumers across the nation, according to numerous lawsuits, news reports and warnings published by government agencies and trade associations.
Gold says she was duped by a company called Dependable Locks after deciding to hire a locksmith to fix a malfunctioning lock on the front door of her home. She called what appeared to be a local listing in her phone book and received a $150 estimate.
What Gold didn't know was she had been routed to the call center of Clearwater, Fla.-based Dependable, which is now the subject of a federal case as well as multiple complaints filed by state attorneys general.
Gold says she was shocked when the two technicians who made the call presented her with a bill for $580.
"They said, 'we need cash' and of course all these bells are going off in my head,'" she says, but she felt like she had no choice but to drive to an ATM with her teenage daughter and fork over the money.
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"I felt mostly a little embarrassed because I'd fallen for it," Gold says.
Owners of Florida-based company arrested
In November 2009, two owners of Dependable were charged with allegedly using coercive and intimidating tactics to strong-arm customers into paying exorbitant fees for locksmith services from its network of technicians around the country.
Moshe Aharoni, 29, and David Peer, 32, were arrested after authorities raided their Clearwater call center.
The two were charged with mail and wire fraud, engaging in financial activities to promote unlawful activities and conspiracy to recruit and employ foreign nationals not authorized to work in the U.S., charges that each carry a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison and fines up to $250,000. They are out on bail.
An affidavit supporting the complaint alleges Dependable managed a national network of more than 100 locksmith technicians and that many of them were non-immigrant Israeli citizens whose visas did not permit them to do this kind of work.
"This reaches throughout the United States," said Doug Smith with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service at the time of the raid.
The federal complaint alleges that customers calling for locksmith services were routed to the Florida center, where they'd receive a price quote and get a local technician dispatched. Responding locksmiths allegedly would charge a much higher rate and were instructed to use various tactics with customers who balked at the price.
"Technicians use techniques such as accusing the consumer who objects to the overcharge of 'theft of services,' threatening to call the police, withholding the customer's keys or driver's license or following the customer to an ATM machine to ensure payment," according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Eastern Missouri, where the case is being prosecuted.
Representatives from the U.S. Postal Inspector's Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the pending case. As of press time, no trial date had been set.
Attorneys general offices file suit against locksmith companies
This year, Dependable made the ranks of Angie's List's top 10 worst contractors of the year. Attorneys general in Arizona, Massachusetts and Missouri have filed suit against the company, and complaints filed in the last year against other locksmith companies in Colorado, North Carolina and Wisconsin suggest the problem is widespread and ongoing.
An Angie's List investigation of suits against Dependable, BBB and our own records uncovered more than 500 consumer complaints against the company or its aliases in at least a dozen cities.
Several other people besides Aharoni and Peer were named as part of the suits against the company. Dependable rates a D on Angie's List based on reports in seven cities, including one filed by member John Brogan.
John and his wife Patricia hired a locksmith they found on the Internet to fix a lever-style exterior door lock on their Minneapolis home. He says Patricia was immediately concerned about whether the locksmith knew what he was doing.
"He didn't seem to have the right tools, and he didn't seem to know what was going on," says Brogan, who joined Angie's List after the experience. "He gave my wife a totally skeevy vibe."
They were surprised to find the company printed on the $120 receipt was Dependable Locks of Florida. "We thought that was weird because we had called a local number," Brogan says. Three days later, the lock mechanism fell off and the couple had to replace it.
Legimiate locksmiths lament scammers' shoddy work
Mike Bronzell, an Oak Lawn, Ill.-based locksmith, says shoddy work is a trademark of scammers.
"They will book every job, whether they can handle it or not, and string people along with stories," says Bronzell, who runs a mobile service called All Hour Locksmith in the Chicago area and was once a subject of a lawsuit by Dependable for speaking out against the company's practices. Claims against Bronzell were later dismissed from the lawsuit.
"They're destroying our reputations and they're not even locksmiths," he adds. Messages left for Dependable's attorney were not returned.
Attorneys general with locksmith complaints pending declined to talk about their cases, but Colorado Attorney General John Suthers reached a settlement with a company called Basad Inc. in June 2009.
In January 2009, Suthers filed a lawsuit against the Englewood, Colo.-based Basad, alleging it misrepresented the price of their service charges, failed to honor their advertised "20-minute response time" and led customers to believe they had local offices when they only had one address.
The complaint says Basad registered 73 trade names and advertised in several states, though all calls were routed through a center in Englewood.
They also claimed to be licensed, though locksmiths were not required to be licensed in the states they operated in, according to the complaint.
Suthers reached a $100,000 settlement with Basad that will be used to reimburse consumers who filed complaints.
The settlement also requires the company to disclose during the initial sales call that there will be additional charges and record those calls for a year. Basad did not admit any liability as part of the settlement.
A person who answered Basad's phone declined to comment and a message was not returned.
Mike Saccone, a spokesman for Suthers, says the number of locksmith complaints his office receives has declined since the settlement was reached.
"We have the occasional, sporadic complaint, but not in the volume we had with Basad," Saccone says.
Homeowner says he was "robbed twice"
Complaints may be down in Colorado, but locksmiths and others who track the scams say the cases against Basad and Dependable are only the tip of the iceberg and consumers across the country are still encountering the same scams.
Firefighter David Rossi found a locksmith online to replace three locks when his Woodbridge, Va., home was burglarized. He says the dispatcher at Dale City Emergency Locksmith led him to believe the cost would be around $250, so he was shocked when he was presented with a bill for more than $1,000.
"After looking into it, that's not a normal price for changing locks, even in the middle of the night in an emergency," Rossi says. "It felt like I'd been robbed twice."
Rossi says he found a restaurant at the address where he believed the locksmith was located and was given the runaround when he called and tried to file a complaint with Dale City Emergency Locksmith, whose number was routed to a company called USA Locksmith.
Representatives at USA Locksmith referred calls from Angie's List Magazine to a general manager who was not available by phone and provided an e-mail address that was not in service. Messages were not returned.
There are F reports on Angie's List for companies called USA Locksmith and USA Locksmiths in five states. The Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, which licenses locksmiths, has filed a complaint against USA Locksmith alleging they employ unlicensed technicians, use false addresses and overcharge consumers.
Misleading listings appear local
Many locksmiths interviewed for this story say Internet search engines and phone books are part of the problem because scammers create misleading listings that make it appear like they are local businesses.
"If you happen to pick the wrong name and the wrong number, you're in trouble," says Roland Malone, owner of highly rated Scottsdale Lock in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Malone says scammers have created online listings using the name of his 35-year-old business with a number for an out-of-state call center. His company has had to respond to dissatisfied customers who called that number, thinking it was him.
Malone says he wishes law enforcement and Internet search companies would crack down on these scammers. "They're mean, ugly and ruthless and will sell their mother for a nickel and want change," he says.
Elaine Filadelfo, a spokeswoman for Google, acknowledges that some bogus listings wind up in local search results, but she encourages users to report faulty listings.
Tim McMullen, the legislative manager of the national trade group Associated Locksmiths of America, says his organization also has been working with Internet search companies like Google and phone book firms to ensure scammers are weeded out and legitimate locksmiths are easier to identify.
Protecting yourself in case of a lockout
There are a lot of ways consumers can protect themselves from shady operators. Don't wait until an emergency arises to pick a locksmith.
"If you're stuck in a rainstorm in the parking lot of Walmart at three in the morning, you're going to Google or call 411," says Larry Friberg, a retired police officer who runs a website that tracks scams called Legallocksmiths.com. "You're going to get a scammer."
Joe Weiss of the A-rated Larry the Locksmith in Bronx, N.Y., recommends calling several local companies. "If they're all in the same price range, it's probably pretty accurate," says Weiss, who is a registered locksmith with New York City's Department of Consumer Affairs.
He says customers should expect to pay more if they need service in the middle of the night, but legitimate locksmiths will detail their costs up front. "If we go out and something is different from what we told them on the phone, we tell them the price before we do the work," he says.
Be leery of any locksmith who shows up in an unmarked vehicle, acts cagey when questioned about the company or immediately recommends drilling out a lock.
If you live in a state where locksmiths are required to be licensed, you should check their credentials with the appropriate agency.
McMullen of the locksmith's association says his organization has pushed lawmakers in states without licensure to introduce legislation that would more closely regulate the industry, such as a Florida bill introduced in March that would require locksmiths to be licensed by the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
But McMullen says legislation and enforcement are only part of the way to stop scammers. "The real solution to the problem is consumer awareness," he says.