Locksmith alert! Beware low quote scheme

SEATTLE -- When a local man got locked out of his house over the weekend, he did what many of us would do. He pulled out his smart phone, did a quick internet search, and called a locksmith. But that turned out to be a mistake. Because the quote he found on the internet- a quote he says was confirmed over the phone- almost quadrupled once the locksmith showed up.

Rogue locksmiths tend use local phone numbers in their marketing. But the calls are typically routed to central call centers in another state. There are reportedly thousands of them. They pay for legit looking websites and use names very similar to the names of reputable companies, so it's difficult to tell who's who. The goal is to get you to make the call when you have an emergency, then inflate the price once they show up to unlock your home or vehicle.

Keith Ramsey says his emergency happened during a late afternoon downpour. When he went to unlock his front door, he realized he had the wrong keys. "What are we going to do?" he asked, "It's pouring down rain. And we're stuck."

Ramsey immediately grabbed the smart phone from his back pocket and did an online search for locksmiths in Seattle. He noted an abundance of locksmith ads using various combinations of the same phrases: 24/7, locksmith and Seattle in their names. It's the same situation in virtually every major city in the country.

Ramsey says he settled on a search result near the top of the page -- a company called 24/7 Locksmith Seattle -- because of the promised quick response and reasonable pricing: $15 for the service call and $35 for a residential lockout -- $50 total. Ramsey says the locksmith showed up an hour later.

"As soon as he stepped out of the car he said it was going to be $169 plus $15 for the service fee," Ramsey said. That's $184 instead of $50.

Ramsey says the locksmith, who only gave a first name, announced the price jump when he was still 40 feet from the front door and had not accessed the situation.

"I was standing in the rain. Had been waiting for an hour," Ramsey said.

And when he challenged the price change and mentioned the state Attorney General - the locksmith dropped the total charge to $130. He says the locksmith had the door open in about 60 seconds.

Ramsey says when he called the company to complain about price gouging, he was reminded of the posted disclaimer that prices may change depending on the difficulty of the job and the locksmith had made the determination.

The Problem Solvers have warned about this practice before. We've even gone under cover to catch what are called "rogue locksmiths" in the act. According to the Federal Trade Commission, it's a nationwide problem.

When I called the number on the 24/7 Locksmith Seattle website, I was told I would have to leave a message. The customer service rep would not give me his name, nor that of his manager or the person who would be receiving my message. I could hear many other customer calls taking place in the background.

I also left a message at the 425 area code cell phone number left by the man who showed up at Ramsey's house. As of this posting, neither the locksmith nor the company have returned my calls.

A check with the Better Business Bureau reveals the company has an F rating, the worst given, because of unanswered complaints. A check with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to verify the company's listed address -- 5931 Applewood St. Seattle, 98101, reveals the address does not exist. U.S. Postal Inspector Jeremy Leder says he was unable to find the address in postal records and the address appears to be fictitious.

Locksmiths are uncharted territory for most consumers. They're much like heating and plumbing contractors, movers, remodeling and repair contractors, and other services you only need every now and then, if at all.

As Ramsey and others have learned the hard way, the worst time to do a search, is when you need someone 'right now'. To avoid unfair charges, poor workmanship or worse - take time now to do some homework and find reputable local professionals you can call if and when you need them.

Verify a local, physical address. Verify the license. Talk to friends neighbors and co-workers, and check for complaints. And if you get burned, be sure that you file complaints with the state Attorney General, the Federal Trade Commission, and the BBB.