Lock, Stock and Swindle??
Reported by: Joce Sterman
Contributor: John Anglim
Last Update: 3/10 9:03 pm
Better Business Bureau report: Dependable Locksmith
It's happened to all of us. You're rushing, so you shut the door and leave your keys inside your car or your house. You call a locksmith. But the person who shows up may be part of what the Better Business Bureau is calling a nationwide swindle. ABC2 News Investigator Joce Sterman shows us how the scam is being kept alive, right here in Baltimore.
They can jimmy their way into your home or pop a lock to gain access to your car. But this time, you're paying them. You need their help in an emergency. But there's no way of knowing who's going to show up and what secrets they may have locked away.
Anne Arundel locksmith John Yates has harsh words for the people he says give his trade a bad name, "They're illegitimate locksmiths. I don't even want to call them locksmiths at all." Yates feels those kinds of locksmiths ruin the trust he's worked hard to build with his business. He tells us, "I hold this dear. This has put food on my table for better than 20 years."
But not every locksmith considers themselves a guardian of your trust. Some are using their tools to rip you off. The Better Business Bureau is calling it a scam - one theyve spotted in 35 states, including Maryland. How's it work? It all starts with the phonebook. You're locked out, so you turn to the yellow pages. Thats where youll find dozens of companies ready to help; some of them could be scammers. Tom Foxwell with Associated Locksmiths of America says, "These people are serious. They're investing some serious money because of the amount of money they're taking out of this state."
Industry experts say they get that money through those phonebook ads, the ones that push you to generic-named locksmith companies with local numbers and addresses. Foxwell says, "It just says they'll take care of you locally. But they're not local." In fact, many of these generic locksmiths are all tied to one out-of- state company, Dependable Locksmith of New York. According to a BBB report, Dependable has had more than 250 complaints nationwide in the past 3 years. But few states have taken any legal or government action against the company. Angie Barnett with the BBB says theres a reason for that, "Part of the problem is they keep coming up with new names."
Its those names that make it hard to figure out who's really part of the scam. So far the BBB has tracked 18 aliases for Dependable branches nationwide, but our investigation found a few more even they didn't know about. We found them by checking five Baltimore-area locksmiths with generic names. We started with the addresses and got our first clues. Looking to be saved from your lockout? You won't find salvation at 24-Hour Locksmith, listed on Harford Road. It's actually a church. Chomping at the bit to get back into your car? What about A1 Locksmith on Pennsylvania Avenue? That's really a corner carryout store. And you can forget Always Available on Fleet Street. There aren't any locksmiths available there, because it's the business office for a construction company.
So the addresses we found are fake, but are these companies linked to Dependable? We dialed all of the local phone numbers they listed with their ads. Guess what? They trace back to the same call center, apparently run by Dependable. As for what happens when you get through to these numbers? Experts say thats the biggest part of the scam. Angie Barnett says, "They'll quote you a price over the phone. In actuality, the total cost may be double or triple what was quoted over the phone."
We decided to try the scam for ourselves. We called a locksmith; one of the ones listed with the fake addresses we told you about. We wanted to see who would show up. During the call we gave the operator our information and directions to our car. Their representative quoted us a $39 fee. Then, we waited 35 minutes before the driver showed up in an unmarked car. When he handed us the paperwork, we realized our $39 quote had jumped all the way up to $149. The locksmith couldnt explain why our fee had changed or why his invoice said 'Dependable Lock', even though we'd called A1 Emergency Locksmiths. We made calls and sent emails to Dependables office but we never got a response. Barnett says, "As long as they're getting away with it, this unregulated industry, it's going to continue to put us at some risk."
That risk continues in Maryland, in part because there's no licensing when it comes to locksmiths. That means no background checks, no fingerprinting and basically no way of knowing anything about the person who shows up to pop your lock. Locksmith John Yates says, "As it stands in Maryland right now, you can come out of prison for breaking and entering, any other crime - rape, murder, whatever and say I'm a locksmith." That locksmith may have few qualifications, but they can still get unlimited access to your home and your car.
That loophole may be changing soon. For the 3rd time in 15 years, Maryland is considering a bill that would license locksmiths. A committee hearing at the State House in Annapolis is scheduled for Monday, March 10th. Across the nation, only 9 states have licensing requirements for locksmiths. According to the Associated Locksmiths of America, 11 additional states have begun looking into implementing similar programs since January of 2008.
ALIASES USED BY DEPENDABLE LOCKSMITH
According to Better Business Bureau reports, DEPENDABLE LOCKSMITH also operates under the following names:
24 Hour Emergency Locksmith
24 Hour Emergency Service Locksmith
Always Ready Locksmith
Columbus One Locksmith
Five Star Locksmith
Top Guard Locksmith
USA Silver Locksmith
USA Total Security
Staying Away from Scamming Locksmiths
TIPS FROM THE BETTER BUSINESS BUREAU
Find a legitimate locksmith before you need one and store their number for future use
Call around to "local" shops and verify they are truly local
Ask the business specifically where they're located
Listen to how they answer the phone - if they just say, "Locksmith" and not a specific company, that may be an indicator they're part of a national call center that's not local
Always ask for an itemized invoice with your service - you'll need it to dispute the charges
If you feel you've been scammed, file a report with the BBB and the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division.
Montrose, New York