WEST PALM BEACH —
The rise of smartphones and mobile web searches is fueling a ripoff that targets people looking for a locksmith.
Hundreds of times a day in South Florida, people are being victimized by what's known as "copycat" locksmiths using the names of legitimate businesses, fake addresses and phone numbers that funnel calls to boiler rooms with dozens of phone lines, experts say.
"When you Google ‘locksmith,' nine out of 10 times the numbers that come up are not for legitimate locksmiths," said Barry Roberts, an attorney with an office in Palm Beach Gardens, who represents the Associated Locksmiths of America. "It has really grown exponentially with the Internet and with the voice-over-IP phones," which turn simple telephone signals into digital data that can be sent anywhere.
"You can't tell where anybody really is."
Driving the trend is that people don't always plan to call locksmiths, instead turning to them in an emergency, for example, when they're unexpectedly locked out of their home or car. Also, locksmiths aren't licensed, which opens the field to workers with little training.
The epidemic is putting consumers' security at risk and costing brick-and-mortar companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost business.
"The tipoff is they won't give a written estimate, and they want payment upfront. They want cash. They will take the ATM card and ask people to get money out," Roberts said. "It gets consumers at their most vulnerable."
If someone answers the phone with a generic "lock smith" or "lock smith's service," or "Florida lock smith" rather than a company name, it's most likely not a legitimate locksmith, Roberts said.
Be wary of a worker who shows up in an unmarked vehicle, isn't wearing a company uniform and doesn't carry business cards, work orders or an invoice with the company's name, he said.
"They will tell them a lockout is $73.95, then when they get there it is $600," said Richard Rowan, owner of Wilson-Rowan Locksmith Co., a 92-year-old company in West Palm Beach. "If you are locked out, they will destroy the lock, bring a new lock and stick it in."
The copycats have websites using the Wilson-Rowan name, phone numbers claiming to be the company's and fake addresses similar to the actual address, Rowan said.
"It's identity theft. They use everything of mine, including the address and website. The only thing they change is the phone number," Rowan said. "It's happening to all the major locksmiths."
For example, instead of Wilson-Rowan's actual website at www.wilsonrowanlocksmith.com, another website that's the same except for the plural "locksmiths" contains two phone numbers that are not the company's.
Rowan has a thick file filled with reports from people taken by the copycat locksmiths, and his efforts to get law-enforcement officials to do something about the problem, which they have not. Some of the copycats have claimed to be "subcontractors," but Wilson-Rowan doesn't use subcontractors.
The Federal Trade Commission warns that some who claim to be "local locksmith" companies have as many as 30 or more separate listings in a single phone book with different names. Calls are routed to a central number in a distant city where operators dispatch untrained workers.
In 2011, the U.S. Attorney's Office indicted the owners of Dependable Locks, headquartered in Clearwater, on federal charges involving a national scam to overcharge customers as well as employing and harboring illegal aliens.
The Florida Attorney General's Office has received about 100 complaints since 2009. The AG's office does not investigate individual complaints, but looks for patterns.
A Boynton Beach widow told of being quoted $89, then charged $228 for her condo deadbolt by a copycat locksmith. The worker wanted to go to an ATM with her to take out cash, and said he would waive the sales tax. She refused and paid with her credit card.
"I am very concerned that they will sell my credit card info, or that they will return and use the keys to enter my home. That is why I have canceled the card and had yet another set of locks installed," she said in the complaint.
"This is a very scary thing. Something needs to be done," the Boynton woman wrote. "When I realized what was happening, I just panicked. I was so scared, and all I wanted was to get this guy out of my house."
Robert Stephens, owner of C.K.'s Lockshop and Security Center, a Boynton Beach locksmith in business since 1960, estimates he loses at least $200,000 a year to the fraudulent companies. But he can't know for sure because he doesn't know how many people who use a copycat locksmith never realize that was the case.
C.K.'s locksmiths show up in a company truck with an orange C.K.'s uniform shirt and have business cards and C.K.'s invoices. The company is also developing an application for mobile phones that will enable customers to make sure they are contacting C.K.'s and not an impostor.
"There is no way of us knowing how much business we lose. We only find out when a customer makes an effort to find us," Stephens said.
The 7,000-member Associated Locksmiths of America is pushing for Florida and other states that do not have it to pass locksmith licensing and enforce it. Only 11 states have licensing for locksmith services, although companies hold occupational licenses.
Roberts said the group is also working with Google to have misleading information removed. But other search engines may have copycat listings.
Consumer awareness is the best way to combat the problem, said Roberts and the locksmith firms.
The association of locksmiths has a "find a locksmith" app that can be downloaded. Go to www.findalocksmith.com to locate a member locksmith, or call (800) 532-2562. Another option is to find the name of a locksmith you trust and keep it in your phone or wallet.
Finding a reputable locksmith
Search before you need one, and keep the phone number in your wallet or cell phone.
If you're locked out of your car and have a roadside assistance service, call them first.
Call family or friends for recommendations.
If you find a locksmith in the phone book, on the Internet, or through directory assistance, confirm that the address belongs to that locksmith. You can verify addresses through websites that allow you to match phone numbers and street addresses.
If a company answers the phone with a generic phrase such as "locksmith services," rather than a company name, be wary. Ask for the legal name of the business. If the person refuses, call another locksmith.
Get an estimate for all work and replacement parts from the locksmith before work begins.
When the locksmith arrives, ask for identification, including a business card. Check to see if the vehicle has a name that matches the business card, invoice, and/or bill.
A legitimate locksmith should confirm your identity and make sure you are the property owner before doing any work.
In the case of a lock-out, be cautious if you're told up front that the lock has to be drilled and replaced. An experienced legitimate locksmith can unlock almost any door.
If you are not comfortable with the person who shows up, refuse his services.
Source: Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov; Associated Locksmiths of America, www.aloa.org