KEY TO SECURITY: Legitimate locksmiths warn homeowners to take precautions against unscrupulous practices
Aug 23, 2009 (Albuquerque Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Locked out of the car? Your home? If you can't manage to get in yourself, be extra careful about who you call to the rescue -- and that's advice from the people who make it their business coming to your aid.
In other words: "Know your locksmith before you need a locksmith," said Bill Fadgen, owner of Bill's Lock & Key in Albuquerque, who distributes flyers alerting customers to watch for locksmith scams being reported around the country, including in New Mexico.
"I've been aware of this for about two years, " he said. "That's why I put this on my counter this year." The flyers were prepared by a former Phoenix detective, Larry Friberg, who now lives in Oregon. He launched a national campaign, and the Web site, www.LegalLocksmiths.com, to combat what he calls "illegal phony so-called locksmiths." "Locksmiths have been fighting this 15 years, but it's really gotten bad in the last five," Friberg said. "They are losing business because of these guys." Their M.O.: Flood the phone books with local numbers for locksmiths, but with fake business addresses to make customers think they are legitimate businesses, according to the flyer. When customers call the listed numbers, they ring back to "deceptive boiler rooms" -- the offices that get the calls and dispatch someone in the field to respond. The customers typically are quoted very low prices.
"Then they are deceived with bills much higher than their original quotes and in some cases, 10 to 15 times higher," the flyer alleges. It also contends there are copycats who run ads similar to the names of established locksmiths to deceive customers.
Similar activities were reported by the Better Business Bureau in a 2007 consumer advisory, which noted complaints nationwide about locksmith services had increased 75 percent from 2005 to 2006. The advisory added some details: Suspect locksmiths typically arrived in unmarked vehicles when responding to calls and often only accepted cash. It said the bureau also received many complaints from people who said they were charged for unnecessary services.
While Fadgen and other local locksmiths said they've heard from customers who have been victimized, it's difficult to pin down how widespread unscrupulous practices are in New Mexico.
The Attorney General's Consumer Protection Office has not received any locksmith-type complaints nor is it handling any current cases against locksmiths, according to AG spokesman Phil Sisneros. The Better Business Bureau office in Albuquerque, which serves New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, reported receiving 49 complaints concerning one Colorado-based company over the past three years, but only two originating from the Albuquerque area.
One thing is clear: Someone who needs a locksmith might find it difficult deciding on which one to call. The Albuquerque area white pages, for instance, contain literally hundreds of locksmith listings -- just under the A's heading alone. According to Fadgen, only about 30 have well-established credentials.
"When you look in the phone book, make sure the person has been here a while," added George Perry, owner of Classic Lock & Key in Albuquerque, conceding that might be easier said than done.
"A plumber is easy because there's a license number, an electrician's easy because there's a license number," he said. "That's not the case with locksmiths." Some research is necessary. For starters, Fadgen suggested visiting the locksmith in person.
"Go in and see the people, see the shop," he said.
He also said there are some Web sites that can be consulted, including Friberg's LegalLocksmiths. com and the site owned by the trade group Associated Locksmiths of America, www.aloa.org. It lists ALOAcertified locksmiths by ZIP code. Fadgen said both did background checks on him.
The Better Business Bureau also could look up whether there have been any complaints filed against a given company.
"The best advice is to get the phone number of a reliable locksmith you could utilize if you ever needed one," said Gena Coldwell of the BBB office in Albuquerque. And make sure you have it with you at all times.
"We tell people lots of times put it in your cell phone," Perry said. "Put two or three numbers of people you know in it." That might not be very helpful if you're out of town and locked out of your car. For those situations, the Federal Trade Commission, which issued its own consumer alert last year about phony locksmiths, offered these suggestions: If you have roadside assistance, call it first, as it might have a pre-approved list of companies to perform services like unlocking cars.
Call family or friends for recommendations.
If you find a locksmith in the phone book, Internet or through directory assistance, try to confirm the listed address belongs to that locksmith.
If a company answers the phone with a generic phrase like "locksmith services" instead of a specific company name, be wary. If the person refuses to tell you the legal name of the business, call someone else.
Get an estimate for all work and replacement parts before any work begins. Most legitimate locksmiths will provide an estimate on the phone for the total cost of work.
Find out if the locksmith is insured and ask for identification, including a business card and license, where applicable. Expect the locksmith to ask you for identification.
Be suspicious if a locksmith tells you up front the lock has to be drilled and replaced.
After the work is completed, get an itemized invoice and price of the service call.
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