John Kelly’s Washington: Welcome to the locksmith scam

John Kelly
Columnist March 13, 2012

There’s a block of Veirs Mill Road in Silver Spring that seems like the perfect place to get locked out of your car. After all, salvation is close at hand.

According to the Super Pages telephone directory, you will find no fewer than five locksmiths in that one stretch.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Except there are no locksmiths physically located there. The address given for one locksmith is actually a pizzeria. Another locksmith is supposed to be two doors up. Instead, there’s a taco joint. A Portuguese restaurant is where the third locksmith is supposedly located.

Things aren’t any better across the street. Where the Yellow Pages list two locksmiths, you will instead find a dry cleaner and a fast-food restaurant.

Each locksmith has a different phone number with a 301 area code, but when I called, they were answered by the same people. “Are you in Silver Spring?” I would ask.

“We have mobile technicians in your area,” came the reply.

Of course, when you’re locked out of your car, how likely is it that you’re going to turn to the Yellow Pages — or, as it was called on “The Simpsons” the other night, “the Internet for old people”? You’ll probably pull out your smartphone. If you search on Bing, you will find a completely different locksmith listed at the same address as the pizza place. A totally different locksmith is listed at the fast-food place, too.

This looks like what legitimate locksmiths call the “locksmith scam.”

“[Companies] pose as local locksmiths, and they advertise in the Yellow Pages and on the Internet using local phone numbers and, in many cases, fake local addresses,” said Edward Johnson of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Washington. “Many of them have a call center located in the Bronx in New York City.”

I’ve got nothing against the Bronx. And none of this would really matter if a clean, courteous, reasonably-priced mobile technician came to your rescue. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Said Edward: “Typically what happens is they quote a reasonable price over the phone, but when the locksmith arrives, sometimes in an unmarked vehicle, they generally demand more than the quote and often only accept cash.”

In 2010 the Washington and Philadelphia offices of the Better Business Bureau (they’re under the same organizational umbrella) received 797 complaints about locksmiths. Sadly, there’s not much the BBB can do.

“We share information with the proper authorities, but it is difficult to track them because they pop up under different names with the same MO,” Edward said.

There’s something downright un-American about lying in the Yellow Pages. And there’s something creepy about potentially sketchy locksmiths. Who knows what damage a crooked locksmith could do. Might he come back and steal your car? If you’re locked out of your house, could he make himself a duplicate key and help himself later to some of your possessions?

Actually, legitimate locksmiths say those things rarely happen. “It’s not that you have to worry about them coming back,” said Jim Mullins, who runs Sure-Fit Security, a 50-year-old locksmith company in Silver Spring. “They rip you off when they see you. They don’t want to see you again. They overcharge you for labor and materials.”

Who are these people? Well, I can’t say for sure, since everyone who answered the phone hung up on me when I told them I was a Washington Post columnist. In one interesting case from 2009 the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Louis charged an Israeli national with running a locksmith scam. The man allegedly ran a call center in Florida from which more than 20 telephone dispatchers answered calls forwarded to them from thousands of numbers across the country. They would funnel service calls to 43 locksmith technicians, most of whom entered the country on visas that didn’t allow them to work as locksmiths, according to court records.

Legitimate locksmiths say the avalanche of fake addresses and phone numbers floods the Internet, crowding out the good guys. Search engine companies, they say, do too little to police the marketplace.

Stephanie Hobbs of the Local Search Association, the organization that represents Yellow Pages publishers, says the fact that a business uses a call center doesn’t mean it’s a scam. As for incorrect addresses, she said, “As we get those, we take them out.” She stressed that it’s up to consumers to do due diligence when choosing service providers.

Said Jim of Sure-Fit: “We don’t have a fair chance to fight these guys who are marketing gurus and have big international money.”

For previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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