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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/13/2007 2:32:36 AM ET 2007-07-13T06:32:36

Most locksmiths are honest. A few are not. According to a new warning from the Better Business Bureau, these untrustworthy locksmiths are “ripping off consumers” across the country. The BBB says this “nationwide locksmith swindle” has already resulted in more than a thousand complaints.

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“We know that there are thousands more people across the country who have been victims and don’t even know it,” says Alison Preszler with the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

The BBB blames most of the problem on two companies: Dependable Locksmith (New York) and Basad Inc. (Englewood, Colo.). These two firms also operate in other major cities across the country using dozens of generic aliases, such as AAA Locksmith, A-1 Locksmith and 24 Hour Locksmith – names that are also widely used by reputable companies.

The BBB says unhappy customers complain that Dependable and Basad significantly overcharge, charge for unnecessary services, and use intimidation tactics. In some cases, the final bill is four times as much as the quoted price.

“They have made taking advantage of people who are locked out of their house or car part of their business model,” Preszler says.

In Oak Creek, Wis., Carol Pintar was locked out her car on a cold night in December. She looked in the Yellow Pages and found a locksmith in nearby South Milwaukee. They told her the price would be $35.

The locksmith arrived in an unmarked vehicle, rather than a commercial van. That’s usually the case with these dishonest operations. Pintar said he demanded payment upfront – another warning sign. But the price wasn’t $35 as quoted. It was $95.

“I did give him the money, but I really felt funny about the whole situation,” she says. “I just knew it was some kind of scam, so I called the Better Business Bureau.”

The BBB’s Alison Preszler told me, “Many victims have come to us and said they knew they were being taken advantage of, but felt helpless to argue.”

Show me the money
Noelle, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio felt that way. She asked me not to use her last name because she has already been harassed by the company. Last August, after returning to a friend’s house from a rock concert, Noelle realized she had locked her keys in the car. It was 2 a.m.

Noelle looked in the phone book and found “24-Hour Locksmith.” She called and was told the charge would be $40. When the locksmith arrived – in an unmarked vehicle – he told Noelle he’d have to break the door to get it open. “He said he’d have to use a crow bar or break the window,” she told me.

But there was a better option. For another $60, he could use a Slim Jim and pop the door open with no damage. Noelle agreed to the new fee of $100.

Once the door was open, Noelle was told the bill was $250.

“And I was like, excuse me! How do I owe you $250?”

The guy told her there were fees and service charges. And because she was going to pay by check, there was a check-processing fee. He volunteered to drive her to an ATM to get cash, but Noelle didn’t like that idea.

“He would not give me my keys back until I gave him a check for $250. I was very upset because I realized I was being taken advantage of,” she told me. But she needed to get into her car, so she paid.

A few days later, Noelle decided to visit the company, to complain in person. She found several locations listed in the phone book, but they all were bogus addresses.

A common trick
Each of these companies uses a slick trick to appear as if they’re a local locksmith. They place ads in phone directories and on the Internet using fake local addresses and phone numbers that ring at a call center in another part of the country. For instance, dial one of the Dependable Lock companies and your call will be routed to New York.

“Consumers think they’re calling a reputable locksmith and they’re quoted a price that seems very reasonable,” says Claire Rosenzweig, President and CEO of the BBB of Metropolitan New York. “Then these people show up and charge more than you expected.”

For the record: I called both companies and could not find anyone who would talk to me about the BBB’s allegations. The attorney for Dependable Locks returned my call, but would only talk off the record. His only on-the-record comment? No comment.

The bottom line
The Better Business Bureau suggests finding a good locksmith before you need one. That’s a good idea, but most people don’t do that.

So, how do you protect yourself? Be careful. Don’t pick a company at random based on an ad in the phone book. If you’re stuck in a situation where you need help right away, try to find a familiar name.

If you can get to a computer, you can check the company online 24/7 on the BBB’s Web site. If not, call a friend and see if they know of a good local company.

If you’re a member of AAA, you might want to use their locksmith service.

Be suspicious of anyone who shows up in an unmarked vehicle. Never pay before the work is done. Whenever possible, use a credit card. It has built in fraud protection. Finally, if you’re not comfortable with the person who shows up, don’t use them.

If you do get burned, let someone know about it. File complaints with the Better Business Bureau and your state’s consumer protection or Attorney General’s office.

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