BBB Investigation: Rogue locksmiths leave many consumers out in the cold

ID-10069398Better Business Bureau serving Central, Coastal, Southwest Texas and the Permian Basin advises consumers to be cautious when hiring a locksmith.

Nationally, BBB received 1,066 complaints against the industry in 2013. However, a BBB investigator found that the real number of consumers hurt by disreputable locksmith businesses is likely much higher, because of the difficulty in tracking down rogue locksmiths.

Consumers often report finding low prices online or being quoted a low price over the phone—in the $15 to $30 range—and being told to pay hundreds of dollars at the time of service. Customers often reported they paid the higher price anyway because of the situations they were in or because they felt threatened.

Because rogue locksmiths frequently deceive consumers about who they represent and where their businesses are located, consumers often can’t be sure who to file a complaint against when they have a problem.

A BBB investigator found that some locksmiths refused to give a company name over the phone or would simply answer to any company name if asked. At times, calls to what appeared to be several different companies reached the same person or switchboard.

Online searches often found that the same company claimed numerous addresses—often belonging to homeowners or other businesses—all around the U.S. Consumers reported receiving invoices with different company names and phone numbers than the ones they initially reached out to, sometimes pointing them to locksmith companies in other states.

Problems in the industry are nationwide, according to the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA), which warns search engines and other media are being dominated by listings from fake locksmiths that deceive the public and threaten legitimate locksmiths’ livelihood.

“It is definitely squeezing legitimate locksmiths out of business,” said ALOA task force chair, Mike Bronzell. “When these people show up, they’re not professional. Do you want someone to come to your house and use a drill or a crowbar? It’s embarrassing. Locksmiths had years and years of trust built up. Now all of a sudden these people are showing up who are not even locksmiths.”

BBB reviewed the files of locksmiths throughout our 79-county service area. BBB found that many locksmiths are listed in directories without website addresses, or have websites with little information other than a phone number. In those cases, consumers have to call for price quotes.

However, BBB was able to find websites making price claims that misled consumers. BBB reached out to four locksmith businesses in our service area with advertising issues that warranted ad challenges. Problems included potentially deceptive pricing, discount claims, guarantees and “number one” claims. One business did respond via phone; a second business responded but failed to make modifications. The other two did not respond. No business provided substantiation for its online claims.

One website that drew BBB’s attention stated a “20 percent off limited time discount,” “100 percent guarantee,” and a “rated number one” claim. Two others advertised a $15 “service fee,” but a disclaimer about additional costs for parts and labor was difficult to find.

BBB requested businesses advertising low service fees include a statement to more clearly disclose that the fee was for a service call only, not the entire locksmith job.

Further investigation into the industry found additional problems, including fake addresses that went to other businesses or empty lots, licensing that was absent or hard to verify, property damage and invoices with conflicting information.

Rebekah Hutton had only lived in San Antonio a few weeks when she found herself locked out of her house on her birthday. She called a locksmith to remove a jammed key from her garage door, but her day only got worse.

“I slept in the car because I couldn’t get back in the house,” she said. “I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and hadn’t had a shower, so I couldn’t go to work. I spent the night in my car on my birthday.”

Hutton said the technician broke the key off in the lock and charged twice the price she was quoted after forcing the garage door open. She had access to her garage, but was still locked out of her house.

Hutton said although she felt she was being overcharged and the technician did a poor job, she still paid him because she was afraid. “I’m a single woman,” she said. “I was scared and intimidated. He kept getting real close to me and it was freaking me out.”

Hutton said she wasn’t going to pay at first. “I told him I wasn’t going to pay him if he couldn’t get me in the house,” she said. “He said he opened the garage door and that was good enough. I said ‘I’m not paying.’ He got in my body space. They originally told me it would cost $40. He tried to charge me $120. He finally went down to $80 and I paid. He threatened to call the police if I didn’t pay. My dad and my brothers said I should’ve let him call the police. I’m never going to call that company again.”

The above complaint is just one example of the problems BBB found in the locksmith industry. The following is a breakdown of issues uncovered during an investigation that spanned several months:

Deceptive pricing: The complaint most commonly reported by consumers involves deceptive pricing. Consumers report finding low prices online or being quoted a low price over the phone. Consumers often expect to pay a fee in the $15 to $30 range, but end up paying well over $100 and sometimes hundreds of dollars at the time of service. Consumers often pay because they are desperate to regain access to their home or vehicle, or because they feel intimidated.

Unlicensed locksmiths: Locksmiths in Texas are required to have a license from the Texas Department of Public Safety (TxDPS), but this is sometimes difficult to verify. Locksmiths often do not state their license number on their websites and sometimes refuse to give the number over the phone.

It is often difficult to verify if a company is licensed through the online TxDPS locksmith search page by looking up a company name, due in part to the widespread use of alternate business names and website addresses in the industry.

Evasion and conflicting information: During BBB’s investigation, calls to locksmith companies were often answered “locksmith” or “services.” Those answering the phone often refused to give a company name or would answer “yes” to any company name the investigator suggested. If asked for a TxDPS license number, the dispatcher would often hang up or claim no authority to give the information and promise a return call that never happened.

Consumers often report receiving an invoice with different addresses, phone numbers or information than that of the service they originally tried to get in touch with. Consumers have also reported being asked to sign blank invoices.

Fake addresses: Disreputable locksmiths often use multiple company names and addresses in order to make consumers who search online believe they are dealing with a local business. In reality, the person answering the phone may be located in another state.

BBB’s investigation found addresses published by online locksmith companies that turned out to be stores, restaurants, homes or in some cases empty lots. Suite numbers often turned out to be drop boxes with a parcel delivery service. Companies contacted by phone often would not divulge an address. In some cases, they gave a P.O. Box, insisting they were “mobile locksmiths only” and refused to give a physical location.

Damage to property: Consumers also filed complaints with BBB alleging the company damaged their vehicle or residence. Although a trained locksmith should be able to open a lock without causing damage, complaints referring to residential calls state that the technician drills out locks—then makes the consumer pay for new locks.

Damage to reputable locksmiths. According to the Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA), bogus locksmiths are damaging reputable businesses by:

  • Redirecting business from legitimate locksmiths to themselves.
  • Using stolen license numbers in their advertising that belong to other locksmiths.
  • Dominating the Internet with false listings, making it difficult for consumers to find local, licensed locksmiths.

Sizing up the problem

The ALOA Locksmith Task Force works to inform the public and authorities about what task force chair Mike Bronzell stated is a “nationwide locksmith racketeering scam,” which has flooded search engines with thousands of listings that use false addresses to appear local.

Bronzell said the spread of bogus locksmiths does real harm to reputable locksmiths. He claimed much of the problem comes down to search engines and the publishing of advertisements from bogus locksmith companies. “If we could stop the issue with advertising, that would solve this whole problem,” Bronzell said.

Bronzell said ALOA would like to see government intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice on counterfeit locksmiths and more oversight on search engines that allow listings from unlicensed locksmiths with fake addresses to dominate the Internet and put legitimate locksmiths out of business.

Consumers should take precautions

Being an informed consumer can help avoid the risk of hiring a bogus locksmith, said Don Hiser, president of the Texas Locksmiths Association.

Hiser said consumers should be aware of license requirements in Texas. Every Texas locksmith company must have a license. It begins with a B and has five numerals (eg. Bxxxxx). If it starts with a Z, the license is pending with TxDPS. Each individual locksmith must be registered with TxDPS, which requires a 20-year background check.

“The consumer needs to know that the locksmith industry in Texas is licensed and regulated,” Hiser said. “Every locksmith should be able to produce a pocket card showing they have a license. It looks like a cross between a driver’s license and a concealed handgun license. It’s laminated and contains a photo. It should have the same license number as the locksmith business you called. It is the consumer’s right to ask to see it. If they don’t have one, they are probably not legal locksmiths.”

Hiser said consumers should also verify licensing on the first phone call and should hang up if the business cannot give a license number, company name or address. “They should be able to tell you their name or address. If you get a dispatcher who says they’re not authorized to give you their license number, hang up. They should be able to give you their license number. It’s not a secret,” he said.

Consumers should be realistic about upfront service charge claims, Hiser said. A very low advertised price on a website or quoted over the phone could be a red flag. “Every locksmith in the country is going to have a service charge in the $50 to $80 range normally,” he said. “If they are quoting $14 or $15, there’s a chance you will pay a lot more at the end. That covers our time, insurance, gas and license fees.”

Hiser also advised, “Don’t always take the first quote and find a local locksmith you trust. Ask about their trip charge and how much they would charge to get into your model of car. Get some estimates and find someone you feel comfortable with.”

BBB recommends consumers follow this advice when hiring a locksmith:

  • Find a company before you need it. The worst time to research a locksmith is when you’re locked out of your house or car. Get recommendations from friends and check the company’s BBB Business Review and license information. Then save the number in your phone in case of emergency.
  • Know where to turn. If you find yourself locked out of your car or home and don’t have a trusted locksmith’s phone number, check with, even on your smartphone. If you are locked out of a car with your child inside, call the police immediately.
  • Check licensing. Check the company’s licensing with the Texas Department of Public Safety (TxDPS), as well as the individual locksmith’s license. Locksmiths are required to carry a copy of their license, issued by TxDPS. Even if you have researched the company beforehand, ask to see the individual’s license when he or she arrives.
  • Know the price before agreeing to the work. Though locksmiths may not always know the extent of the job before they start, they should be able to provide a fairly accurate range based on the details you provide when you speak with them.
  • Read the fine print. Be sure to read any contract thoroughly before signing. Check for additional fees that weren’t discussed and understand the terms of any guarantees. Ask what the company will do should the locksmith damage your property and make sure it is in writing.
  • Don’t pay cash. A legitimate locksmith should be able to accept credit cards or checks.

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