Claudia Buck

Don’t let an unscrupulous locksmith pick your pocket

It was dinner time on a Saturday and Jacqueline Boyle was heading out for a meal with her 9-year-old daughter and her adult, disabled son. But as soon as they got to her car, the Rio Linda resident realized she’d left her keys in the house. And the front door was locked tight.

Stranded, with no way back into her house or her car, she dialed a friend, who went online and found a “24/7” locksmith able to make a house call. That’s when Boyle’s real troubles started.

More than two hours later, in the dark, the locksmith showed up, she said, “in an unmarked truck and wasn’t wearing a uniform. There was nothing that showed he was a locksmith.” He quickly popped open her locked security screen door, then drilled out her front door lock and replaced it with a simple “bedroom doorknob,” according to Boyle.

All the work was completed in about 15 minutes, said Boyle, a state employee. But instead of the $19 service call and an “online discount” quoted in the ad, the final bill was $300. And despite what was said in the ad, the locksmith said he couldn’t accept a credit card, only cash.

It was dark, she was tired and everyone was hungry. Because Boyle didn’t have enough cash, the locksmith followed her to a nearby Bank of America ATM, where she withdrew $300 to pay the bill. It was an unnerving experience, says the Rio Linda resident.

“I felt I was being railroaded,” said Boyle. “Once he refused my card, I felt I had no choice.”

Unscrupulous locksmiths can prey on unsuspecting consumers, who often find themselves vulnerable, locked out of their home, office or vehicle.

“It’s like drilling for dollars. They hold people hostage right at their door,” said Gary Almond, president of the Northeast California Better Business Bureau, which covers 24 counties.

In the last three years, there were 65 complaints about locksmiths to the West Sacramento-based BBB office. That sounds low, but Almond said locksmith complaints are underreported because many people don’t know they’ve been ripped off until later, or are too intimidated to report it.

The vast majority of problems are with mobile companies, said Almond. “You’re calling out of the phone book, and you don’t know who they are.” Many have “confusingly similar names” and are run by dispatchers over the phone. When they show up, Almond said, they sometimes feign trying to pick the lock but claim it’s a “specialty” lock that can’t be picked.

“It’s a ‘drill mill’ where they send out people to drill your lock,” then start inflating the price you’re charged, he said. “They’re taking advantage of people in a desperate situation. That’s why you have to know who you’re dealing with before you have them at your house or your car.”

Almond should know. As part of a sting operation earlier this year with Channel 13 (KOVR), Almond called two local locksmith companies to his home to unlock his front door. Prior to the calls, a licensed locksmith picked the home’s lock within seconds, Almond said. But the two companies that showed up said it couldn’t be picked, but had to be drilled.

“Within seconds, most experienced locksmiths can open your door without doing anything special, like drilling,” Almond said.

In Boyle’s case, the company called itself “24/7 Sacramento Locksmith.” It’s no longer listed as licensed on the state Department of Consumer Affairs website. But it’s still operating, answering phone calls at two different numbers. When contacted twice by The Sacramento Bee, different dispatchers said a company official would call back. The calls were not returned as of late Thursday.

Statewide, there are 2,900 licensed locksmith companies, according to the state Department of Consumer Affairs. In fiscal year 2012-2013, the department received 169 complaints about licensees, but many of those operating without licenses go undetected. “A lot of the people who are unethical or illegal are unlicensed individuals,” said consumer affairs spokeswoman Monica Vargas. She urged consumers who’ve had a problem to call or go online to the state to lodge a complaint.

“They help us when they complain,” she said, because the department will investigate all complaints. “One of the best ways to combat (illegal locksmiths) is to empower consumers with education” on how to avoid being scammed, she said.

Floyd Kobler, a 24-year locksmith who works for Bode & Bode Lock & Safe in downtown Sacramento, said the standard price range to open a locked house or car door is $65 to $95. And in most cases, it’s a simple matter of picking the lock, using professional tools.

“Very seldom do we need to drill,” said Kobler. “Drilling a lock is the last resort, not the first step. If somebody drills your door, 90 percent of the time they’re not a professional.”

To avoid scammers, the BBB and state consumer officials urge consumers to check out a professional locksmith ahead of time. Be sure the company and the locksmiths it employs are licensed by the state Department of Consumer Affairs. Check if the company has had complaints filed against it by the Better Business Bureau. Get a cost estimate ahead of time and ask to see their license when they arrive.

And if you’re uncomfortable with the person who shows up at your door, the BBB’s Almond said, “Sometimes people are better off to say ‘No.’”

As for Boyle, she says she learned a good lesson the expensive way. “You know what they say about not believing everything you see on the Internet? It’s definitely not the best place to find a good locksmith.”

Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.

How to Hire a Locksmith

Verify credibility. Don’t panic if you’re locked out. Take time to find a credible locksmith company. Ask friends or family for someone they’ve successfully used in the past. Or look at the Better Business Bureau under “accredited locksmiths.” Ideally, find a locksmith company before you need one.

Check licensing. In California, locksmiths must be licensed with the state Department of Consumer Affairs’ Bureau of Security and Investigations. Check the bureau’s website. You can also call a local BBB office or check its website for locksmith complaints. (In the BBB’s Northeast California office, call (916) 443-6843 or go online to: http://www.bbb.org/northeast-california.

Get an estimate/invoice. When calling a locksmith, get a cost estimate prior to arrival. Confirm the estimate when the locksmith arrives and get an itemized invoice when work is completed. The invoice should include the company’s contact information and a breakdown of parts, labor and the amount owed.

If repair is more than $500. If the combined cost of labor and materials is more than $500, the locksmith must also be licensed with the Contractors State License Board. Verify a license by calling (800) 321-2752 or go to the CSLB website.

To file complaints: Contact the state Dept. of Consumer Affairs helpline at (800) 952-5210 or go online to: dca.ca.org To file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, go to: bbb.org.

Source: Bee research

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