KOMO report: Rogue locksmiths prey on desperate victims

SEATTLE - If you ever lock yourself out of your house or car, be careful who you call for help. And don't just call the first or biggest ad you see on the Internet or phone directory. You could get gouged for double, triple, even four times what you should have to pay.

Rogue locksmiths are pulling off what some say is a "bait and switch". Others call it a scam.

Part of the problem is that we never think about locksmiths until we need one - in which case we're usually desperate and at the mercy of whomever is available to help. That's exactly what these guys are counting on.

They come to your rescue, but these guys are not your friends. If you want your car keys, if you want back inside your home - be prepared to pay an inflated price.

Across the state and across the country, rogue locksmiths - often unlicensed and untrained - are running a lockout-"gotcha".

Mike Gowrylow thought he was getting a great deal. A service charge of only $19 - plus time on the job. He says it took about 3 seconds for the locksmith to unlock his car door. Total bill? $109.

Ellen Ginn got a quote of $39.95 when she locked her keys in the ignition. Once the so-called locksmith showed up ... "Oh, the fee isn't $39.95, it's $175." Ginn said.

How much should you expect to pay for a typical car lockout? According to Dave Armstrong of AAA Washington, for most vehicles it's nowhere near $100, let alone $175.

"If you're calling retail, (not an AAA member) a reputable locksmith will charge anywhere between $50 and $75," explained Armstrong. "That's the total cost to show up and unlock your car."

The certified technicians at AAA know the horror stories. They showed us how most vehicles can be unlocked relatively quickly - in a matter of minutes, if not seconds. It doesn't take long - and it doesn't cost hundreds of dollars.

Unscrupulous operators simply depend on your desperation. They hook you in with a low-ball quote, then they hold your keys hostage until you pay the inflated price - often in cash. In some cases, they encourage you to let them accompany you to the ATM. If pressed, they'll often take a credit card.

And car lockouts are not the only targets.

Laurie Todd hired a locksmith to re-key five locks on her new home.

"So it was going to be like $140 plus tax," says Todd. But after walking through her home, the man, in an unmarked personal car with no uniform, business card or professional paperwork, upped the price.

"He wrote down $280," Todd explained. Double the original quote for one less lock.

Rogue locksmiths use generic names and copy-cat phrases so you can't tell who the good guys are. Some of the companies advertising in the state of Washington are not legally licensed. And it turns out some of the companies that say they're local are not that local at all.

Despite local phone numbers, the Better Business Bureau has traced a number of the companies to an operation based in New York and Colorado. They simply dispatch some guy where you live - an independent contractor - who gets as much money from you as he can.

The local BBB just launched an investigation. Spokeswoman Niki Horace says some of the companies with legitimate-looking websites are actually using the BBB logo without authorization. Horace says the shady operators are almost impossible to pin down.

"Numbers can change at any time. Locations can change at any time. Company names can change at any time. It's very, very shady. But they get away with it," said Horace.

And Horace says it's not necessarily illegal, because virtually anyone can take out an ad and claim to be a locksmith. Once you agree to even an inflated price, you're expected to pay.

But as Ellen Ginn discovered, you don't have to agree. You can refuse the work, pay the service fee and send the locksmith packing. Cut your losses. Or, as many report doing, challenge them. After a forceful protest, then being told to leave, Ginn says her locksmith suddenly caved.

She explains: "He immediately said, 'Well, my boss is going to get really mad at me, very angry. But I can give you a deal. I'll charge you only $65."

Which is all Ginn should have paid in the first place.

To avoid getting burned, do your homework before you ever need a locksmith. Talk to friends and neighbors. Contact your insurance company for referrals. Or call AAA, which now offers residential lock-out service with its memberships as well as vehicle lockout.

Dave Amstrong says you can call even if you're not an AAA member and get referrals. You won't get the member rate, of course, but AAA says they'll give you names of trustworthy locksmiths that they do business with.

You can also find reliable locksmiths in your area through the nonprofit rating service Angie's List.

Once you find a truly local locksmith who you can trust, memorize the name - and program that number in your cell phone. (Just don't lock your phone in the car with your keys.)

Want to know more about locksmith scams? Just do an Internet search with those key words: "locksmith scams." Then spread the word.