The terms, “asleep at the switch” and “asleep at the wheel” arose from 19th-century American railroading, when it was the trainman’s duty to switch cars from one track to another by means of manually operated levers. If he should fail to do so, trains could collide.
You could say that the American locksmith industry has been asleep or at least fairly passive in the last few decades as locksmiths watched the growth of the large home centers and alarm companies encroach upon their security businesses, eating away at their profits.
When listings of phony locksmiths ballooned in the last couple of years, the locksmith industry was still slumbering, with most locksmiths minding their own businesses. Yet, some got angry and a few locksmiths took action, such as Illinois locksmith Mike Bronzell who, fed up with the scammers, took legal action against a company that was hurting locksmith businesses in Illinois.
In March, when I was given a copy of the Southeastern Michigan Yellow Pages, I was shocked to see the hundreds of illegitimate locksmiths listed and wrote, “How to Stop a Fraudulent Scam,” in the Locksmith Ledger. I realized then that most locksmiths and most locksmith distributors had been nearly asleep as this incredible challenge to the locksmith industry grew while listings of phony “locksmiths” sprouted like weeds.
I found out about Larry Friberg’s www.legallocksmiths.com and Mike Bronzell and Gale Johnson and Tim McMullen at ALOA and the efforts that were taken “behind the scenes” to extinguish the burgeoning threat to all legitimate locksmiths. I realized that until more locksmiths and distributors got involved, the scammers were here to stay.
Seven months later, it is apparent that the locksmith industry is finally awake. Not that there aren’t people still pretending to be legitimate locksmiths, ripping customers off. For example, a Detroit area locksmith showed me a copy of a handwritten invoice from Dependable Locks Inc. of Clearwater, Fla. He told me the customer was furious after having to pay for an Adams Rite deadlatch with the wrong backset that didn’t work. What was the price for this “service?” The invoice shows $350 for a “new mahahis” and $85 for “libor” (which I assume is supposed to be “labor”) for a total of $435. The real locksmith then put on a new lock and fixed the Adams Rite paddle and charged the customer a total of $150. I know buyers should beware but this example is just one of hundreds of examples of people scammed by guys pretending to be legitimate locksmiths. It’s like MTV’s show, Punk’d, but designed for unknowing customers who need lock help and look in phone books, on the Internet, or call an operator for assistance.
Thankfully, a lot is being done to combat such shenanigans. For example, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed suit on August 31, 2009, against Dependable Locks and its owners for their “role in locksmith scheme.” The Attorney General wrote: “The defendants have repeatedly taken advantage of vulnerable consumers who are locked out of their homes and cars. By saturating Massachusetts phone books with their false advertisements and overcharging customers for their services, the defendants have not only harmed consumers, but also negatively affected legitimate locksmith companies in the Commonwealth.”
Some of the positive actions taken this year came out of an April 16th meeting held at ALOA Headquarters which included representatives from locksmiths, distributors, ALOA, locksmith magazines, Larry Friberg, and me. There was a lot of discussion on how to beat the scammers and one of the decisions was to educate real locksmiths on how to fight the cyber battle and to introduce programs that set real locksmiths apart from scammers. All three locksmith publications agreed to run an article on how to combat deceptive listings on the Internet and how to claim your site back if it’s been “hijacked” (“How to Fight the Cyber Battle: Locksmith Internet Defense 101”). ALOA then helped produce a Public Service Announcement and radio and television spots (ranging from 15 to 60 seconds) were introduced. Two sets were produced, one with the tagline, “Locksmiths You Can Trust,” and another set which allows locksmiths to put in their own company tagline and logo.
Tim McMullen, Legislative Manager from ALOA, has been traveling around the country to various locksmith associations to show what has been done. He highlighted the improved FindALocksmith.com website that allows consumers to find reputable locksmiths in their areas. ALOA members can enter data like specialties, shop hours, radius search, and multiple locations. McMullen also introduced to the industry TMP Directional Marketing which has undertaken a $55 million directory advertising program for ALOA. This program allows ALOA members to advertise together under a trademark ad which will be supported by a branded ad. TMP, who has close contacts with the nationwide directories, can cut down on the number of non-members using the ALOA logo.
ALOA and TMP Directional Marketing have developed a partnership with AT&T and other phone companies to launch a Yellow Pages Brand AD National Program which will allow consumers to be directed to select an ALOA member thru the ALOA Trademarked Column Listing and ALOA Branded Ad Program. With their help, consumers will hopefully be directed to a trusted locksmith within the Yellow Page books and Internet sites.
One of the best and most effective tools for a locksmith to give his customer is the “Locksmith Scam Alert,” a high-quality two-page fold-out brochure that directs the end user, “DON’T BE A VICTIM,” and gives information for the unsuspecting consumer. It offers “Tips on Hiring a Reputable Locksmith,” including “looking closely at the ad to see that the business name is clearly identified.” It advises asking lots of questions, including where the business is located, its actual address, whether the locksmith is insured or licensed, and whether they are certified. It advises consumers to ask for an estimate and “once the locksmith arrives,” to ask for identification. The brochure also offers info about some of the typical scams and gives information on filing a complaint if necessary with ALOA, the FTC (877-FTC-HELP), the Consumer Protection Agency, the Attorney General, and the BBB. It also offers other informational websites, including aloa.org, locksmithwiki.com, and legallocksmiths.com. For the legitimate locksmith, there is an open spot on the front of the brochure to put his company stamp or company label.
These brochures only cost 20 cents each and can be ordered from Professional Business Products at 1-800-355-6322 or can be ordered with the locksmith’s phone number and other information in larger quantities. Distributors can also order these brochures and pass them out as a service to their customers.
A few months ago, veteran Detroit-area locksmith Jim Mowry from Aaron’s Lock and Key, wrote a vehement letter to AT&T with the help of his attorney, concerning the proliferation of illegitimate locksmith phone numbers and addresses. Understanding the urgency of the request, a meeting was called by AT&T’s Michigan Sales Manager. I watched and listened to his informed presentation of the problem for reputable locksmiths who depend on Yellow Page advertising. Jim said that it only made sense to eliminate some of his advertising with AT&T because it was hard to tell who was legitimate and who wasn’t. The manager and representatives at AT&T listened intently and promised to do what they could to reduce the problem.
When the new Yellow Pages book from Oakland County, Mich., was published, AT&T did what it said it would. Most phony listings had been deleted from the book and many had been eliminated on www.yellowpages.com.
Google, after hearing numerous complaints, also made improvements, eliminating tens of thousands of copycat and fraudulent listings, but according to Jim, they “still have a long way to go.” Afterward, I realized that legitimate advertisers who advertise with AT&T and Google can rightfully complain and if they do, their messages can be heard.
Jim learned more from ALOA and taught himself how to use the Internet to his advantage. He has also become an automotive specialist and networked more than he ever had before. He now asks his customers for positive referrals, has joined Angie’s List, and has worked diligently to spread word about his company and the specialized locksmith services that he and his brother offer.
Like other locksmiths around the country, he has been called to action. After the scourge of phony locksmith listings and amidst the terrible economic environment, he realized that he and his brother, Jack, had to act quickly to make their business better. To them, it’s a matter of survival. He is fighting to help customers, to help other locksmiths, and to help his own company survive and grow. He warns other locksmiths not to sit back and just do the same-old-same-old-worn-out Yellow Pages advertising. He writes, “It is time for every locksmith to find ways to get customers and not rely on others to do their bidding.” According to Jim, they should “belong to local and national locksmith associations” and “as a group, advance public awareness of legitimate locksmiths.”
Good locksmiths must learn more, specialize, network, be willing to fight for survival, and in the next few years, they can be the locksmiths who prosper. Scammers will come and scammers will go but enterprising, hard-working, reputable locksmiths will be here to stay.
Arnie Goldman is President of IDN-Hardware Sales, Inc. and a member of SHDA’s Industry Advocacy Committee.