Scam Alert: Price-Gouging Locksmiths Rip Off Customers

When the woman left her friend’s house late one night in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, she discovered she’d locked her keys in her car. Noelle found “Locksmith 24-Hour, Inc.,” in the phone book, and the person who answered her call quoted a price of $40.

But when the locksmith showed up, he announced it would be an additional $80 plus tax to unlock the car door with a Slim Jim tool. Noelle, who does not want her last name disclosed, would also have to fork over a fee for paying by check. The total came to nearly $200, and the man made it clear that Noelle would not get her keys until she paid.

The next day, intent on disputing the charges, Noelle investigated further and found that there was no locksmith at the local address listed in the phone book. She cancelled the check. That’s when the locksmith and his associates started calling her “like five times a day,” Noelle says, threatening to destroy her credit and even drive by her home.

After agreeing last year to pay fines and restitution for violating consumer protection laws in Ohio and Illinois, New York City–based Superb Solutions, which did business under the name 24-Hour, among others, closed up shop. But other rogue locksmiths are turning up around the country, according to the Better Business Bureau. The number of complaints about locksmiths received by the bureau’s 114 U.S. offices rose by 75 percent from 2005 to 2006, and were up again in 2007.

The locksmith’s modus operandi is this: Cram yellow pages and websites with listings for generic-sounding lock and key companies, such as A-1, 24-Hour and Dependable, at sham local addresses. In fact, the businesses operate from a single call center often located far away and often in other states. They quote an attractive price over the phone, but once on the scene, jack it up to well above the going rate. And if the customer complains? The scammers simply dig their heels in—and often prevail because most customers, especially if they’re stranded as Noelle was, are entirely dependent on their help.

The best defense is to find a good local locksmith before you’re locked out of your house or car. Ask friends or colleagues for recommendations and verify the company’s address. The Associated Locksmiths of America offers tips on how to avoid being scammed.

If you’ve been ripped off, file a complaint at the government’s Internet Crime Complaint Center by clicking here.

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