Angie Peiris recently required a locksmith to open the door of a rental property she owns in Granada Hills. Her tenant had moved out and locked the keys inside.
Peiris, 61, director of Brighton Hall, a Burbank school for kids in show business, got the door opened.
She also received a bill for what she says were hundreds of dollars in unexpected charges, and told me the locksmith refused to return her driver’s license unless she agreed to pay.
“I was all by myself,” Peiris said. “He knew my address. He had my license. I felt like I had no choice.”
Her experience serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who requires professional services at their residence — contractors, plumbers, electricians. Overbilling by locksmiths is a common concern.
“It’s a problem,” acknowledged Mary May, executive director of Texas-based ALOA Security Professionals Assn., formerly known as Associated Locksmiths of America, a national trade group.
“From what I’ve heard, some of these people can be pretty intimidating if you don’t pay them,” she said.
The California Department of Consumer Affairs warns that “unscrupulous technicians can damage locks, charge exorbitant fees and sell security information about customers’ houses to burglars.”
In Peiris’ case, she contacted a company called 24/7 Locksmith around midday on a Saturday. Her sister, a property manager, had provided the number.
Peiris said a man who identified himself as Dani arrived in a private car, not a commercial vehicle, and informed her there would be a $15 fee for the on-site visit and a charge of $45 to unlock the door.
Peiris said she agreed to that and watched as Dani struggled with the lock. He told her he’d have to try a different method, “bumping” the lock as opposed to picking it.
There are plenty of websites and online videos that explain lock bumping. Basically, a special key is inserted into the lock and then “bumped” deeper using a little force. This aligns the lock pins and allows the door to be pushed open.
Peiris said Dani did this in under a minute. She said he then asked for her driver’s license so he could copy down the information. Then he handed her his invoice, which Peiris shared with me.
Total cost: $457.75, including $285 for the bump.
“I asked why it was suddenly so expensive,” Peiris recalled. “He just shrugged and refused to give back my driver’s license unless I paid.”
She said she felt like she had no choice and handed over her credit card. It wasn’t until she returned to work the following Monday that she asked a staffer to look into it.
That staffer, who asked that his name be withheld (you’ll see why in a moment), told me he called the number for 24/7 Locksmith that was on the invoice. When a company worker called back, he said, the name “Atinger” appeared in the caller ID screen.
The staffer then went to the website of the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which licenses locksmiths. He did a search for “Atinger.” The first listing that comes up is for a Nimrod Atinger of Tarzana.
Googling “Nimrod Atinger” reveals affiliations with a number of local businesses, including Quick Locksmith, Speedy Locksmith and Expert Locksmith, each of which is now inactive, according to state records.
In June, according to the California secretary of state, Atinger registered a new business, ASAP Locksmith Service.
I called ASAP and managed to connect with Atinger. He confirmed that he runs both ASAP and 24/7 Locksmith. I explained that I was calling from the Los Angeles Times to follow up on Peiris’ experience.
Atinger confirmed having sent a worker to Peiris’ Granada Hills address. He then demanded to know why I was asking questions. Was I a police officer?
I repeated that I’m a journalist following up on a reader’s concerns. The tone of the call changed quickly.
Atinger complained that Peiris had posted a negative review on Yelp (“Do not call this locksmith!” it says).
“I have 500 five-star reviews,” Atinger told me. “I’m not the bad guy.”
His other locksmith companies may have received hundreds of five-star reviews. But there are only 15 other reviews on the page that includes Peiris’ review, and most give only one star.
“They quoted me $60 over the phone to come and open the door to my home,” one says. “Once the job was completed, they told me the price was $150.” Another says a $60 estimate turned into a bill for $170.
Atinger told me if I had further questions, I should speak with his lawyer.
I asked for the lawyer’s name so I could follow up on how a $60 estimate became a $457 bill. Atinger didn’t provide a contact. Instead, he said he’d report me to the police for bothering him.
“I have $60 million in my bank account and you are a small piece of excrement,” he said. He didn’t actually say “excrement.” He used a different word.
After Atinger hung up on me, I recalled what May, the head of the locksmith trade group, had said about some people being intimidating. Happily, I don’t intimidate easy.
Ben Deci, a spokesman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, said there’s no record of any enforcement actions taken against Atinger, which can mean his nose is clean or that no one ever filed an official complaint against him.
Deci said the agency received 85 complaints about locksmiths in the most recent fiscal year. The majority — more than 60% of the total — involved allegations of unlicensed activity.
“If a consumer thinks they’ve been the victim of fraudulent pricing, or illegal collection practices, we urge them to file a complaint,” Deci said.
He advised requesting to see a locksmith’s state license before agreeing to any work. He also said any locksmith service valued at $500 or more requires a state contractor’s license as well.
“Consumers should get a quote beforehand,” Deci said. “But bear in mind, there are thousands of different types of locks and thousands of different solutions to a lock-out situation. A consumer may initially get a best-case-scenario quote, but end up with a worst-case-scenario price tag.”
If the original quoted price seems unrealistically low, he added, “that’s a red flag.”
What happened to Peiris may have been just a misunderstanding, although the sequence of events she related to me sounds troublesome, particularly that bit about the guy not giving back her driver’s license.
She disputed her credit card payment to 24/7 Locksmith. The outcome of the card issuer’s investigation is pending.
For the rest of us, follow Deci’s advice. Always make sure you’re dealing with a legit, licensed locksmith. Ask to see the license. Get a price quote up front. Don’t hesitate to report a questionable experience.
And if the locksmith asks for your driver’s license, hold it up for him or her to see. Don’t let go of it.