Don’t get taken

Locksmith industry still scam prone in unregulated Colorado

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When Longmont resident Nikki Kayser needed to replace the deadbolt on her door on Thanksgiving Day, she turned to the Internet for a locksmith who would work holidays, and found herself connecting to someone through a personal cell phone he answered with a gruff “hello” instead of a business name. She describes his manner when he arrived as “impatient,” and said he was difficult to communicate with. They settled on a $200 deadbolt she would need a key to operate, and she realized only after he left that it stuck so much that she was unable to open the door. He wouldn’t return to fix it. Later, she saw that same lock for sale in a hardware store for $20. She was billed a total of $530 for the lock and services, and was asked to pay in cash — he offered to drive her to the ATM if she didn’t have the amount on hand.

Kayser’s friend later contacted the locksmith to see if she could get more information from him, tried to set up an appointment, and asked for his last name during that process. His texted response: “One million dollars.” She questioned what he meant by that, and received only “bye-bye” in response.

It’s an all too common scenario.

A car or home lockout leaves someone in a desperate situation, and phony locksmiths step in, offering low-ball bids by phone that are then tripled on arrival. Scam locksmiths will post multiple phone book and Internet listings with multiple false addresses and phone numbers. Consumer calls go to out-of-state operations that quote a reasonable price by phone, but when the locksmith bills, it’s significantly more, according to the Associated Locksmiths of America. Most often, complaints of these practices follow car lockouts, and consumers report being given estimates of roughly $45, then billed for $135 to $150 with the claim that servicing has increased the costs. The locksmiths association also reports consumers locked out of their homes being charged $900 to $1,700 to replace a $12 lock.

The New York Times reported in 2011 that there were, according to Yelp, 3,000 locksmiths working in Seattle, and most of those listed businesses connected to phone banks far from Seattle, sometimes overseas, and sent in someone poorly trained who’d do poor quality work at two or three times the estimated cost.

“They’re all over the place, especially around metro areas,” says Russell Harverson with Flatirons Locksmiths of Lafayette.

Companies advertise as if they’re local, but the calls go to a call center that’s often out of state and hires people to come out who then take a quote that began as low as $15 and ask for $150 for the service.

“They’re taking advantage of people being in a bind,” he says.

If the customer declines service, the technicians will ask for a cancellation fee on top of the trip charge — and no one should have to pay the cancellation. He’s had experiences where he talked to someone, gave an estimate, and the customer went with a lower estimate only to call back later when that other locksmith arrived and wanted $150. In the end, because that locksmith was there, and the price suddenly dropped when Harverson was called, the customer went with the scammer.

“So who gets screwed there? He does, because he’s paying more than he would with me, and I do, because I’m a local locksmith trying to do a legitimate business and these guys are stealing money from us as well,” Harverson says.

Wes Sugden of Seahorse Safe & Lockout Service investigated some of the 183 fellow locksmiths in Longmont listed in the Yellow Pages a number of years ago and found addresses that led to a Burger King and an industrial building where chai tea is brewed. Just cross-checking addresses for Boulder County locksmiths with Google streetview shows that those addresses direct to nonexistent locations, private homes and even a post office.

“Colorado doesn’t license locksmiths,” Sugden says. “What that means is that in Colorado, anybody can hang out a shingle and say, ‘I’m a locksmith.’”

He’s reached out to state Rep. Jonathan Singer to take up the issue in legislation.

Sugden has also encountered other locksmiths working with lock pick sets ordered off the Internet and next to no training. Sugden is a Certified Registered Locksmith through the Associated Locksmiths of America, the professional organization for locksmiths that self-regulates and standardizes curriculum for locksmith training, and has been in the business 35 years.

Sugden argues the system needs to change.

“This is not the kind of field that should be open to just anybody. It needs to be regulated, it needs to be controlled, and it’s not. The most that happens is, like when I started out here, I got a business license and that’s all I need,” says Sugden. “But as far as a locksmith license, a lot of states have them, but Colorado is not one and that’s why these phony locksmiths are able to come in here and operate because they’re not regulated. … They can do whatever they want to, they can ask whatever they want to.”

They’re probably not paying sales tax to the city or state either, he adds.

And just how much should a person expect to pay for a car lockout or replacing a home deadbolt?

“That’s kind of hard to tell,” he says. Trip charges and labor costs vary, and time of day can change the costs, too — if it’s after 5 p.m., the price goes up.

Bottom line, he says, is get an estimate before asking a locksmith to come out and if they ask for more, don’t feel obligated to pay more than a trip charge — and “when that happens, just call the police right away, there’s a guy out here who’s trying to rip you off.”

The Better Business Bureau for Denver and Boulder has more than 20 F-rated locksmiths just in their service area and says that in a recent year, they received almost 50 complaints against locksmiths.

The Better Business Bureau recommends asking for the legal name of a business; obtaining an estimate that includes additional fees like mileage charges, minimum service fees or late-night surcharges before the locksmith arrives; looking for a service vehicle or van marked with that business name; requesting identification in the form of a business card or invoice with the company name; insisting on an itemized invoice; asking for information on the locksmith’s insurance; and paying by credit cards rather than cash to utilize built-in fraud protections.

“If you’re calling a locksmith, you want a local company so … the first thing you should ask when they answer the phone, ‘Such-and-such locksmith, how can I help you?’ is, ‘Where are you located?’” Harverson says.

They might not have a shop, he says — he doesn’t, he runs a mobile operation, as does Sugden — but he still answers that he’s based in Lafayette and services all of Boulder County.

“If they can’t tell you a specific area where they’re located, it’s a scam company,” he says.

The Associated Locksmiths of America’s 10-point checklist for detecting locksmith schemes includes that the locksmith may seem unfamiliar with the area, answers the phone as “locksmith service” instead of providing a company name and the advertising for the company may not make the business name clear.

The Federal Trade Commission, the national consumer protection agency, has similarly reported that locksmiths advertising in local phone directories may not be local at all and that the operators working in those call centers are dispatching untrained individuals to open doors to cars and homes. The commission reports 30 or more listings in the same phone book may all connect to the same call center. Requesting cash payments are also a red flag, and a locksmith who says the remedy for a lockout is to drill or replace the lock isn’t an experienced locksmith. The FTC reiterates advice for confirming addresses and getting detailed estimates and itemized invoices.

Only Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas require locksmiths to be licensed, according to the FTC. The Associated Locksmiths of America adds to that list Connecticut, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon and Virginia.

State Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont) says he’s aware of locksmith scams personally — his wife had some direct experience with “the financial scams locksmiths play,” he says — and through a constituent who is a locksmith and has been pressing for increased regulation of the industry to prevent criminals from entering the profession.

“I was considering legislation this year, and I’ll still be looking at it but I’m speaking with individuals in the senate right now, and the senate has been very reluctant to do anything that changes the way regulations happen in Colorado and it’s been very concerning,” Singer says. He points to the bill he drafted with Sen. Rollie Heath (D-Boulder) that would require background checks for coaches who work with kids and was killed in the state senate.

“These are people that not only have access to your valuables, but that have access to your most valuable resource — your kids, and we’re trying to figure out if there’s another Jerry Sandusky waiting in the wings to target kids and we can’t even require coaches to get background checks,” he says. “So with that being said, I don’t know what kind of success we would have with a locksmith bill.”

He adds that he’s still taking it into consideration and will see if there is support in the senate to address this issue this year.

“With the change in the balance of power in the senate with a Republican takeover, they’ve shown ideologically that they’re not ready even to do background checks on coaches that are going to be working directly with our kids, so I don’t hold out a lot of hope for something like this,” he says.

Any complaints over problem locksmiths can be filed with the Federal Trade Commission and the Colorado attorney general.

Locksmiths affiliated with the Associated Locksmiths of America can be found at www.findalocksmith.com.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com