SEATTLE -- Most locksmiths are honest. A few are not. And if you happen to call one of these disreputable companies your bad day will quickly get worse.
When you lock your keys in the car, or lock yourself out of your house, you'd never call a locksmith in New York. At least, you wouldn't do so intentionally. But that's exactly what will happen if you call some of the companies we found working in the Seattle area.
They're all part of Dependable Lock, based in the Bronx. But you'd never know that, because they pretend to be from here.
The Better Business Bureau says the company is part of a "nationwide locksmith swindle" that's ripping off consumers across the country.
"These guys operate everywhere," said Alison Preszler, spokeswoman with the Council of Better Business Bureaus. "And they've made their business model out of taking advantage of people who are locked out of their house and their car."
Flip through the Seattle Yellow Pages and you may stumble across two full-page ads for Always Ready Locksmith and Quick Locksmith.
Both promise low prices and fast service. The ads don't list an address, but with all the 206 and 425 area codes in their ads, it's reasonable to assume they're both local companies.
They're not. Both are part of Dependable Lock.
Dial any of those numbers and your call is answered at a dispatch center in New York.
"You're quoted a reasonable price," says Preszler, "but when the locksmith arrives, he actually charges two, three, even four times more than what you were quoted."
Put to the test
We wanted to see for ourselves, so we drove to the Northgate park-and-ride lot and had Stephanie, a KOMO intern, deliberately lock her keys in our car, a 2000, four-door Acura sedan. It did not have any special security system.
She called Always Ready Locksmith using the North Seattle number listed in the phone book. Stephanie was quoted "$39 plus $15 and up" to open the car.
So the job would be at least $54, but the dispatcher could not be any more specific than that. Stephanie was told to expect someone within 20 to 30 minutes.
The wait was a lot longer. It took an hour for the locksmith -- a man in an unmarked car and not wearing a uniform -- to arrive.
The first thing he did was tell Stephanie the charge was going to be a lot more than $54. He wanted $114, more money than we were willing to pay.
Stephanie told the locksmith she only had $95 on her, so he offered to drive her to an ATM so she could get more cash.
When Stephanie told him she didn't have an ATM card, the locksmith hesitantly took the $95.
With our hidden cameras rolling, we watched as the so-called locksmith fumbled around trying to get into the car. He didn't appear to have the proper tools, and didn't seem to know what he was doing.
He said his name was Sean, and from start to finish it took him six minutes to get the door open.
After he finished opening the door we got out of our van, which was hidden nearby, and approached the locksmith.
Asked why he charged so much for a simple job Sean replied, "Because it's automatic locks. This is how much it costs."
He said he thought $95 was a fair price. "We give like 20 to 25 minute response, so it's very fair."
I reminded him that it took more than an hour for him to arrive, and he didn't have much to say.
Stephanie said she'd have been outraged if she was a normal customer and was told she needed to pay $114 when she was expecting $54.
Sean said if I wanted more information I could contact the Dependable Locksmith offices in the Bronx.
Sean gave us a receipt for only $39, not the $95 we paid him. That would make it a lot harder to file a complaint.
"These companies have been impossible when it comes to getting refunds, when it comes to answering complaints," Preszler said. "They are absolutely non-responsive."
We got quotes from several reputable Seattle-area companies that offer mobile locksmith service and their price quotes ranged from $50 to $75 to open the locks on the car we used in our test during normal business hours. That's half of what Sean told Stephanie he wanted.
And Sean didn't do a very efficient job. We took the car to the AAA shop in downtown Seattle and one of their service techs was able to open the locked door in just 35 seconds.
Clearly, the locks on our car were no reason for the added service charge Sean said was necessary.
And it isn't easy for a reporter to get them to respond to the allegations of deceptive business practices.
How does Dependable Locks respond to these allegations? The company's attorney did respond to my call, but he would only talk off the record. That's a "no comment."
So our colleagues at WABC-TV in New York went to the Bronx and tried to talk to Dependable Lock. Their reporter had a door slammed in her face.
The Council of Better Business Bureaus says it has received complaints from consumers across the country who say they've been ripped off by Dependable Lock.
So how do you protect yourself? If you're a AAA member, call them. If you're not a member, the agency will refer you to a reputable tow company that can get you in.
Other options include calling your local police department or a friend for a referral.
Just don't pick a name at random out of the phone book. You never know who might show up.
Tips for choosing a locksmith
What's in a name? Unscrupulous individuals often operate under many business names or aliases. They may answer the phone with a generic phrase like, "locksmith service" or simply "locksmith". If the call is answered this way, ask, "What is the legal name of your business."
Unclear advertising: Look closely at the ad(s) in the yellow pages. Is the specific name of the business clearly identified? Does the ad look similar to other ads but have a different name? Does it appear that the dealer actually operates under several names?
Unmarked car: Some legitimate locksmiths will work out of a car or unmarked van for quick jobs, but most should arrive in a service vehicle that is clearly marked with the name of the business.
Ask for identification: A legitimate locksmith should ask for identification and some form of proof that you have the authority to allow the unlocking to be done. A legitimate locksmith should also provide you with identification in the form of a business card or invoice with the company name on it. Identifying information should also match the name on the service vehicle.
Get an estimate: Find out what the work will cost before you authorize it. Never sign a blank form authorizing work.
Demand an invoice: Insist on an itemized invoice. You can't dispute a charge without proof of how much you paid and what you paid for.
Just say no: If you are not comfortable with the service provider, you can, and should, refuse to work with the locksmith.
Source: The Council of Better Business Bureaus
Tips courtesy The Council of Better Business Bureaus