Pat McGrath made a very expensive trip to his mailbox.
It wasn’t the bills inside. He didn’t even get to them before having to fork over a lot of money.
McGrath, who lives in a condo in Orange, broke his key in the mailbox lock. That didn’t seem like a big problem at first.
“I did a search on the Internet for ‘locksmith’ and ‘Orange,’ ” said McGrath, 27, an irrigation system designer. “A name popped up: Dependable Locks.”
What he didn’t realize at the time was that Dependable is located in the Bronx, N.Y. And is hardly dependable -- at least as locksmiths, according to authorities.
Dependable sent a local person who arrived at the condos in an unmarked van and took about 15 minutes to install a new lock.
The bill: $200.
“I was in shock,” McGrath said. “I told them, ‘I don’t know how it could be this high.’
“They said that the lock had to be [Postal Service]-certified, and it cost $80.
“Still, $120 for 15 minutes of labor seemed pretty high.”
To make matters worse, McGrath saw the same lock at Home Depot for $20.
But he got off easy.
Untrustworthy national locksmith companies that disguise themselves as local have routinely charged customers $300 and as much as $500 for minor jobs, the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc. said in a recent alert.
Legitimate locksmiths say many of those jobs should cost less than $100. In addition, sometimes the work is so shoddy that additional repairs are needed, said the council, which is the umbrella organization for the BBB system.
Dependable was one of the stars of the alert, with the council calling it “a particularly disreputable locksmith.”
Others mentioned in the alert were Basad Inc. and Liberty Locksmith, but each of the companies does business under several additional names.
For example, Dependable -- which did not respond to requests for an interview -- uses at least 15 other names, according to a BBB report, and 25 telephone numbers. The full BBB report can by found at the New York chapter’s site at www.newyor.bbb.org.
Last year, the Ohio attorney general sued Dependable alleging false advertising, unauthorized repairs and other infractions. Dependable is negotiating to settle the suit, an attorney general’s spokeswoman said.
Also last year, Illinois suspended Dependable’s license to operate in that state, saying it had given fraudulent address information.
Unscrupulous locksmiths take advantage of the fact that people who need those services are often in difficult situations, said Claire Rosenzweig, president of the BBB that covers the New York City area.
“Keep in mind that if you are calling because you can’t get into your house or car, you are vulnerable,” Rosenzweig said. “You might even be calling in the middle of the night.”
In one complaint filed with the BBB, a woman who was locked out of her car was charged an exorbitant amount.
“They said they would only accept cash and wouldn’t let her into her car until she paid,” Rosenzweig said. “They even offered to drive her to an ATM.”
The woman adamantly refused and instead wrote a check. She later canceled the check and filed a police report.
Independent locksmith Mike Bronzell, who works in the Chicago area and is president of the Illinois-Indiana Locksmith Assn., three years ago began railing in Internet forums and elsewhere about the increasing rate of overcharging in the business.
He said McGrath was charged an outrageous fee for his mailbox call. “Most of the times you can pull out the broken key, duplicate it,” Bronzell said.
Even if the lock has to be replaced, the fee should be about $65 and certainly no more than $100, he said.
In California, anyone working as a locksmith is required to get a state license. But you don’t need to know a screwdriver from a chain saw to get one -- no competency or any other kind of test is required.
The only major barrier is a criminal conviction, which “may” be used to deny a license, state law reads. Otherwise, $76 buys your way in.
Locksmith companies doing business in California, even if based outside the state, are also required to be licensed. Furthermore, every alternative company name and branch office needs its own license.
A license number is supposed to be listed in any company advertisement, whether in print or online. But even the state admits that enforcement of licensing regulations is lax.
“There’s a large underground economy in California among locksmiths,” said Kevin Flanagan, spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs.
Except for rare stings, licensing fraud goes on unabated. A quick survey of the locksmiths listed on the Los Angeles Yellowpages.com directory showed that many business names were not licensed.
“There is probably not a level of resources here,” Flanagan said, “that could allow us to regulate all the unlicensed activity.”
Individuals can check on a company or a locksmith’s license at the department’s site, www.dca.ca.gov/bsis/lookup .htm (click on “Locksmith Company”). A license doesn’t guarantee, however, that you’ll get a locksmith with a rosy reputation. For example, Dependable has a California license. So how do you make sure a locksmith on a call to your house or car is not a scammer?
There’s no surefire way, but there are strategies to improve the odds.
If you are a member of the Automobile Club of Southern California, you can get referrals to locksmiths it has checked out. Locksmiths must be licensed and pass business competency background checks to get on the referral roster.
The Auto Club’s referrals are mostly, but not exclusively, for car-lock problems, spokeswoman Carol Thorp said.
The “classic” (formerly basic) membership level comes with the right to four referrals a year for car lockouts, with the club subsidizing as much as $60 an incident. “Premiere” members get four car-lockout referrals plus one referral a year in case of a residential lockout, each with a subsidy of up to $150.
Otherwise, Flanagan had this advice: Be prepared. Don’t wait until you need a locksmith; find one or more beforehand. “Get names and numbers and carry them in your wallet,” he said.
Bronzell suggested you look up local locksmiths at www.findalocksmith.com to see whether they are members of the Associated Locksmiths of America. But that’s not foolproof. The organization, he said, has found scammers on its membership rolls.
Perhaps the best method is to get a good referral. “Check with a friend, a relative,” he said. “Find someone they’ve done business with.”
Bronzell said warnings put out by organizations such as the Council of Better Business Bureaus were helpful in educating the public about unsavory companies and characters in the industry. He just wants to make sure they are not called locksmiths, even when criticizing them.
“These people are phonies,” he said. “They are impersonating real locksmiths.”
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Here are tips for finding legitimate locksmiths.
Get the business name. If a company answers the phone with a generic phrase such as “locksmith service,” ask for the legal name of the business. If it’s not forthcoming, hang up.
Look for the Associated Locksmiths of America logo in advertising. It’s not a guarantee, because some impostors use the logo without joining the trade association. Call (800) 532-2562 to verify membership and still use caution even with members.
The van should identify the locksmith. Most legitimate professionals work out of a vehicle marked with the business name.
Get an estimate before authorizing work. Never sign a blank estimate.
Insist on an itemized invoice.
Ask to see a license. Locksmiths in California are required to carry state licenses on service calls.
Do not allow work to be done if you are uncomfortable with the locksmith.
Source: Associated Locksmiths of America