Avoid being scammed by a “locksmith”

securityIn many states in the U.S., being a locksmith is an unlicensed profession. Combine that lack of regulatory oversight with a lack of consumer protection laws, and one has a recipe for disaster.

The lockout

My parents were feeding my daughter’s therapy cat at my house while my family was on vacation. My parents ended up getting locked out of our house and gave my wife a call while we were driving to Disney World.

My wife asked them if they’d be willing to call a locksmith if we’d pay them back. When my dad agreed, my wife offered to google an Ann Arbor area locksmith for him on her phone, but he said that he could just call OnStar for that information.

Scammer locksmiths to the rescue

In most cases, being locked out of a home, business, or vehicle is an urgent situation where the victim of the mishap is on the street, often in the dark or cold, without the privilege of time to research a good locksmith vendor.

Scammers are ready to take advantage of this. When called, the scammers offer to arrive fast, and either don’t discuss a price, or mention a low “service fee”. This is exactly what a victim wants to hear.

However, how did the scammer get you to call him in the first place? Although rings of scammers have been using the locksmith scam since at least 2005, their methods changed in 2008, when scammers started spamming Google Places and Bing Local with business listings, ensuring that you find their locksmith listings first, even if they’re not local.

A Google spokesperson even admitted, when quoted in a 2011 New York Times article, that there was a major issue and that they were going to work with locksmith associations to mitigate the problem. Their solution so far has simply been to ban all Google Places listings that contain the word “locksmith”.

The scammers have also built up their other skills, and have set up their own referral networks.

The locksmith scam

The scammer, who may be several cities away, will say that he will be right there. He may call 15-20 minutes later to say that he’s no more than 15-20 minutes away, just to keep you on the hook.

Once he arrives, usually in an hour, he will get your written agreement to pay, or he may just proceed to open the door. He’s unlikely to even require you to prove that you have the right to enter the building or vehicle.

locksmith scamHe may do a really shoddy job at bypassing the lock, and he may say that he has to drill out the lock and replace it, but after the work is completed, you will be billed somewhere in the neighborhood of $150 to $9000, depending on how easy of a mark you’re sized up to be, and how much work was “required.”

The victim will then pay the amount, because he or she is very grateful, or doesn’t want to confront the scammer, but either way, shock sets in as an amount of money well beyond what was expected changes hands.

In my case, OnStar connected my dad to U.S. Locksmith. It’s unclear how the OnStar agent “found” this particular “locksmith”. Since 29% of calls to an autoclub for assistance are for lockouts, one would expect OnStar agents to have a resource available for reputable locksmiths in all areas.

Not this OnStar agent, who managed to find a locksmith that only advertises on Craigslist with a phone number of 313-808-5073 and a first name of Ronnie, and was only advertising services in the Detroit metropolitan area, which Ann Arbor is way outside of. There are several reputable locksmiths actually located inside Ann Arbor, and that come up first for a Google search on “ann arbor locksmith”, or even a Google Places search for locksmith.

I suspect that the OnStar agent involved is getting kickbacks from this locksmith scammer, but I’m unclear how OnStar agents are supposed to find vendors for customers. I contacted OnStar for comment, but they did not respond.

When the “locksmith” showed up at my Dad’s house, he didn’t verify that my dad lived there, obviously, but he also didn’t discuss a cost. The guy spent five minutes on the deadbolt with a pick gun, which isn’t good for the lock, but he also gave my dad a bill for $199 after the door was unlocked. The scammer then justified the amount saying that he was being terribly inconvenienced to have to call in a credit card payment. The receipt did not have a name or an address, but only a phone number.

Ted Kooistra of Ann Arbor’s A & B Mobile Lock said, “Our charge would have been $65.00 flat. Now there is always a possibility that the lock can’t be picked for whatever reason. In that case we offer the customer the option of calling someone else. There is no fee to us (scammers will charge a fee) or we can damage the lock and put a new one on, informing the customer the charge up front. This doesn’t happen often but every Locksmith has had this occur.”

The law

There unfortunately isn’t much legislation protecting a consumer as far as regulatory control over pricing. It’s unfortunate that the law doesn’t limit your costs when hiring a service contractor without a written agreement.

Additionally, locksmiths are only required to be licensed and follow a code of ethics in the states of Alabama, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia.

The locksmith may threaten to call the police for theft of service if you don’t pay. If they actually do call the police, make it clear that you are protesting the terms of the agreement, and not refusing to pay without reason.

If you signed a contract and the contracted services were provided and you get sued for the amount, or you need to sue for a refund, you may be left fighting an uphill public policy violation complaint. Therefore, don’t sign anything you don’t actually agree to, but also remember that written terms overrule verbal ones, and the contract is only comprised of what was explicitly agreed to by both parties, in writing or verbally.

Avoiding the scam

Angie’s list provides a 2009 article with 7 tips on how to avoid locksmith scams, but the tips seem somewhat outdated, because recent journalistic investigations show that these locksmith scammers are now wearing uniforms, have commercial signs on their vehicles, and it doesn’t really matter if the scammers give you a quote upfront if they can strong arm you into paying to avoid having to wait for another locksmith to show up, or because the work has already been performed.

The best way to avoid the scam appears to be by calling a reputable locksmith in the first place. Schuyler Towne, one of the physical security industry’s poster boys for all things locks, says “Go find a locksmith in your neighborhood. Meet them. Get their card. Add their info to your phone. The end.” The key to success as usual, is preparation.

It’s hard to say if my dad would have been more careful if it would have been his money that was being spent, but I’d like to think that I would have at least gotten a price ahead of time and been resistant to strong arming. It’s hard to say though, because standing out in the cold, with a hungry cat in the house, and the scammer knowing where you live are pretty strong factors in a hurried decision.