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Better Business Bureau recommends consumers be extra cautious when hiring a locksmith
AUSTIN, Texas – Jan. 25, 2012 — Standing outside his house on a cold night last year, Austin resident Carlos Marquez did not feel like he was in any position to argue with the locksmith who had come out to help him get the broken key out of his lock. Marquez’s family was trying to stay warm in the car, and he had been quoted a reasonable price, $39, on the phone.
“He said, ‘Before I do anything, you have to sign this,’” Marquez said. “Basically what he had me sign was an invoice. It was a blank invoice.”
Marquez said he generally reads documents before signing. But, it was too dark to read that night, and he felt like he had to sign or he would not be able to get back into his house.
“When your family is out in the cold you’re not thinking straight,” he said.
The locksmith proceeded to drill out the old lock and replace it with another. Once Marquez saw what was involved, he realized he could have done the work himself for the cost of a new lock at a home improvement store.
After he was finished, the locksmith told Marquez the total cost for the job was more than $500. When Marquez refused to pay, the locksmith showed him the signed invoice and said he would call the police.
“I kind of felt threatened by him,” Marquez said.
When Marquez called the company the locksmith worked for, the representative on the phone said the locksmith was a contractor and the company had no control over his pricing. Marquez said he felt like he had no choice but to pay.
Better Business Bureau is advising consumers to be especially cautious when hiring a locksmith. Nationally, BBB received almost 1,000 complaints against the industry last year. Most consumers alleged the company charged much more than quoted, or the work done was shoddy or damaged their home or vehicle.
Chris Kiningham, owner of Urgent Lock and Key in Austin, said he has witnessed all manner of disreputable dealings by fellow locksmiths, adding that, in a way, Marquez was lucky to just be overcharged.
Kiningham has been called in to assist after an inexperienced locksmith ruined the ignition of a customer’s car, and caught one company purposefully trying to bill a customer twice for the same service. Customers have even told him that a previous locksmith had threatened them with physical harm if they did not pay the inflated charges.
“Obviously a minor issue is the money,” he said. “They’re also very intimidating, especially with women.”
Adam Webb, owner of Austin Key Guy, said when he tried to expose some of the dishonest practices other locksmiths used, he started getting strange calls. Those calls eventually escalated into threats.
“There was one day where I received about 400 phone calls in the period of four hours. It was their attempt to shut down my phone line so I couldn’t receive any more phone calls,” he said. “They said that I need to watch my back; that they weren’t playing games anymore, and if I didn’t stop doing what I was doing, they were going to kill me.”
One of the practices Kiningham and Webb warned against was advertising a very low rate for a service call — typically $15 — and then charging exorbitant rates once the job was finished. They said if a price seems much lower than equivalent rates with competitors, there is probably a reason for it.
“I’ve bumped into them on jobs; I’ve known some of them personally and their goal is just to get as much money from the customer as they can,” Webb said. “If they get busted, they will just change their business name, or move to a different state.”
San Antonio resident Michael Irvin ran into a problem using a company that used different names in multiple cities when his daughter locked herself out of the house she was renting. He found a company that was based out of Schertz, but ended up waiting an hour and a half for the locksmith to arrive.
Irvin said, based on how long he waited and his conversations with the locksmith, he surmised that the man was based in San Antonio. He found that the company advertised a different name in every city to appear local.
“I read all the ads, I looked at them online and stuff and everything looked legit,” he said. “I wasn’t going to get somebody from San Antonio.”
Once the locksmith arrived, Irvin said, he charged almost $200 to open a basic lock. Irvin had been quoted $12 for the service call, plus $45 for the lock.
“He said that’s the starting fee,” Irvin said. “Being stupid and not being at my house, I signed the papers on the hood of his car. … But when they say that’s the starting fee, you can’t get any simpler lock (than the one the locksmith opened).”
He said he tried to dispute the price with the company, but discovered there was no contact information on the receipt and when he called the number he found online, no one answered the phone or returned his messages.
“Looking back, it was probably a fly-by-night operation,” he said.
Kiningham said that a license and a professional website is not a guarantee of good service.
“A lot of these companies do have legit licenses, but they don’t follow all of the rules,” he said. “They just do the bare minimum to keep from being monitored.”
While locksmiths are held to a tougher standard in Texas than in many other states, he added, he would like to see more enforcement from the Texas Department of Public Safety.
According to the DPS website, locksmiths must have the same license as armored car services, armed guards and private investigators. They are required to maintain insurance and pass a background check in order to obtain the license.
However, Kiningham said not all bad locksmiths are breaking the law. He once stopped working for a company that he felt skirted the line.
“They didn’t do anything illegal that I knew of,” he said. “But it was just kind of an unethical way to do business.”
BBB recommends consumers follow these tips when hiring a locksmith:
· Find a company before you need it. Kiningham said the worst time to try to research a locksmith is when you’re locked out of your house or car. He advised getting recommendations from friends, checking the company’s license and checking the company’s BBB Business Review, then saving the number in your phone in case of emergency.
· Know where to turn. If you find yourself locked out of your car or home and don’t have a trusted locksmith’s phone number, check the BBB iPhone App. If you are locked out of a car with your child inside, call the police.
· Check the license. Locksmiths are required to carry a copy of their license, issued by the DPS, anytime they are on the job. Even if you have researched the company beforehand, ask to see the individual’s license when he or she arrives.
· Know the price before agreeing to the work. Though locksmiths may not always know the extent of the job before they start, Kiningham said they should be able to provide a fairly accurate range based on the details you provide.
· Read the fine print. Be sure to read any contract thoroughly before signing. Check for additional fees that weren’t discussed and understand the terms of any guarantees. Ask what the company will do should the locksmith damage your property and make sure that is in writing as well.
· Don’t pay cash. Even mobile locksmiths should be able to accept credit cards or checks. Kiningham said scammers will often insist that the machine is broken or give another excuse for needing cash. Don’t fall for it.
· Pick a shop with a storefront. While there are several legitimate mobile services in Austin, including his own, Kiningham said someone who has an actual storefront is easier to track down should there be a problem.