“I will gladly pay you Tuesday……” How much that locksmith is really going to cost you…

ABC has a new show called the ‘Lookout.’  The hook is that they are the ‘Lookout’ for you and your consumer rights.  They set up elaborate stings to catch TV repairmen who charge for work that they didn’t do; help you decide if the thread count on the set of sheets you bought is really THAT high (I guess bogus thread counts is becoming a problem….?) and locksmiths who appear to be nothing more than ripoff artists.  It is equal parts: ’20/20′ ; ‘To catch a predator’ and ‘candid camera.’  In the locksmith segment, they had an actress call a locksmith for help, pretending that she is stuck in her backyard without her keys.  (The camera crew and a locksmith ‘expert’ are on-site and commenting to the audience as it all unfolds).  They needed about 30 people to put the zing on the one poor guy who showed up to get her in the house.   (He charged her 10 times what they told her on the phone and trashed the door getting it open, so everyone went home happy)

That the ‘Locksmith Scam’ is alive and well is not news.  In fact, there have been so many exposes about bad Locksmiths in the last few years, I would imagine that the phrase “Hey, let’s re-run the bit on Locksmiths!” is uttered in the newsroom, whenever there is a slow news day. (Here are ‘Locksmith Scam’ reports from 2006,  20072008,   2009,   20102011  2012  AND  2013 ) They are all examples of how (if you are locked out of your house – or your car - and have to call a locksmith) you are at their mercy, in terms of price and efficiency.

    • You’re not from around here are you? Despite the names that pop up in Google, or even your local Yellow Pages, in a great many cases, the ‘Local’ Locksmith is really a call center 500 miles away that contacts somebody who lives in your city and happens to have his own set of tools. You know you’re in trouble when the guy who shows up doesn’t have a uniform; a decal on his vehicle or a receipt that resembles the company that you called.  What else won’t he have? He won’t have an accurate price list, no insurance for damages that he might make to your property; or accountability;
    • They told you HOW MUCH over the phone? That you will pay more than what you were told by the dispatcher on the phone is automatic. How much more is the question.  The problem is that you are desperate and they know it. They are the only thing that stands between you and the other side of your door.  Many people pay whatever the cost ends up being for two reasons: they are just happy to be inside and they are a little intimidated about refusing to pay the guy that just showed them how easy it is to break into their house.  So, they pay and plan to call the company to make a stink. But, after you pay, how simple will it be to actually reach the locksmith company to complain about the price?……….
    • Now who do you work for again? The folks who run this scam are REALLY good at being hidden.  They use multiple aliases and a spider web of corporate identities and addresses that would make your head spin.  (at one point, during the show, the host drove to three separate empty fields in New Jersey that were listed as business addresses)  All of this is designed to keep you from figuring out who is in charge and where they are.  Your original call goes to a call-center in Tempe…the local address is an empty field on the outside of town….and after you call, you could get callbacks from 3 or 4 different locksmiths in your area who claim to be on their way to help you.  In Consumer terms, this means that if you have a problem that you want to solve after the Locksmith has left your house, you’re outta luck; Which brings us to the real question -

How do you avoid this? 

First, let me say that not every person you call, when you’re locked out is a scam artist.  Indeed, I would bet that every city has a Mom & Pop key and lock place that employs salt-of-the-earth folks who would be happy to let you into your house for a reasonable price.  The problem is finding those people at midnight, when you haven’t ever tried to locate them before.  And (as is the case with every scam) separating the good guys from the ones who are trying to fleece you is a lot harder, when you are desperate.

    • Check with the Better Business Bureau (or the FTC). Most of the articles tell you to check the BBB.  That’s great advice.  If the name of the company that you called is listed with the BBB as having an ‘F’ rating, you know they’re somebody you should stay away from. But, if they are NOT listed, don’t take this to mean that they are OK.  If it’s an alias, the BBB won’t necessarily have a bad report on them.  Meaning to say: a good report or no report doesn’t necessarily mean that you are out of the woods. (The FTC also has a helpful Consumer Info Sheet on Finding A Locksmith)
    • Call someone you DO know. If you find yourself locked out of anywhere, the first person that you call should not be a locksmith, it should be someone you know.  Yes, it’s embarrassing…yes, you’re imposing on someone. But, it is also a tad unsafe. Find someone to come hang with you, before you call a complete stranger and tell them “I’m in the dark, locked out and all alone.  Here’s the address!”  It will also be much easier to haggle over a price and stop them from drilling holes in your door that you don’t need if you have a friend with you. And, if you find the need to say “I’m not going to pay $500, since they told me $50 over the phone,” you won’t be alone.  
    • Keep an extra key in a SAFE place.  Here’s an item that everyone should have on their door.  It’s called a ‘Key Safe.’ It usually costs less than Fifty bucks and you screw it to your door.  Once you do that, you’ll never be locked out of your house again. (They do make hide-away keys, that  look like rocks you place in the garden.  But, it doesn’t seem like a safe plan for you to stroll into your garden, pick something up and magically use that to open your front door, while the whole world can watch exactly where you kept it).

Your car’s a different story

It’s a good idea to make an extra car (and a house) key and store them with a friend, on the off-chance that you can reach them, if you’re locked out.  In case you can’t reach that friend at 1:00 in the morning, there’s always Triple A.  (their memberships all come with ‘Lockout’ benefits)  They’ll send a locksmith to help you get into your car if you are a member.

(Editor’s disclaimer: Just to be clear, Consumer Courage is not pushing anyone to join AAA.  If you don’t want to, you can always consider joining, only after you realize that you are locked out of your car. The base membership is only $50 .  If you join and the garage that they send helps you out, you will have spent much less than if you are a victim of the Locksmith Scam)  

If they can’t get you in – a slim jim doesn’t work on every car – AAA will reimburse you up to $50 for a Locksmith that you hire (if you have a regular membership) and $100 (if you have the PLUS membership). 

Hopefully, reading this post is the closest any of us come to getting locked out.   But, one never knows………

Posted by: Mark Wiseman (who once got locked out of his car…on Memorial Day…..at the Beach!   Oy)