PALM BEACH, Fla. - Locksmiths who built their reputation over decades say a phony business stole it away. Palm Beach police arrested David Merkatz of Coconut Creek for allegedly masterminding the copycat scheme that went on for as long as eight years.
Police say there are more than 100 victims, many who paid too much for locksmith services. Businesses are also losing. The owner of Wilson Rowan Locksmith of West Palm Beach estimates he lost $35-50,000 a year during the scheme.
While Merkatz was arrested, businesses think this copycat trend will only continue.
"What I'm afraid of is that if we get one guy off [the streets], we get another guy in. It's going to continue," said Richard Rowan of Wilson Rowan Locksmith.
When customers look up Wilson Rowan Locksmith in the phone book or online, several listings come up making it hard to tell which one is the copycat and which one is legitimate.
Rowan finds out customers are duped when they call complaining about service and the prices.
"Oh my God, they are absolutely irate. They will call you and tell us they can't believe we sent such absolutely unprofessional people to work on their locks," Rowan explained.
It costs the legitimate company business and its reputation.
Richard's Locksmith and Safes in Broward County is working with a lawyer to clean up its reputation.
"In order to get all the false business names off the books, we have to file and get a court order that I can send to Tallahassee," lawyer Miriam Richter said.
It's not just locksmiths and their customers who are vulnerable.
"We're hearing about carpet cleaners, and air duct cleaning having the same issue," Richter explained.
Consumers need to research the company they hire.
Visit the storefront, and look for red flags like someone who only wants cash or a check made out in their name.
"If someone shows up at your house in an unmarked car that can be a clue there," said Palm Beach Police Public Information Officer Fred Hess.
Also, taken action before you have an emergency. Find a reputable business, and visit the storefront. Then put the real phone number into your cell phone so you're prepared when you lock yourself out.
Hess said it's a crime that Merkatz didn't just commit here.
"There's absolute evidence that it extended into Broward and Miami Dade," Hess said.
No charges have been filed in those counties.
Some locksmiths are hoping this case shines a light on a statewide and even nationwide problem. Many locksmiths have been victims.
In the Palm Beach case, the probable cause affidavit says C.K.'s Lockshop & Security Center, Thanks A Lock, Broward Century Locksmith, and Lee's Locksmith are also a victims.
Locksmiths say most of the legitimate companies have been victims to copycats.
"There needs to be some sort of watchdog, maybe the industry can self-regulate, maybe locksmiths should be required to have storefronts," Richter said. "What we hope now is that we get enough attention to put an end to the problem. "
There currently is no regulation of the locksmith industry. They don't have to be licensed with the state like a plumber would be licensed.
Attempts to reach Merkatz were unsuccessful.