May 08--TAMPA -- Ken Hagan thought it was a mistake when he opened his mailbox and found a credit card solicitation from American Express addressed to Clark's Locksmith.
But after getting several more commercial mailings, all addressed to the same locksmith, Hagan, the Hillsborough County Commission chairman, smelled a scam.
"My radar went off," he said.
Hagan's address had been tagged, along with dozens of others in the county, as sites for phony local locksmith shops. The addresses are used to generate sales leads and calls, said Kevin Jackson, the county's chief investigator for consumer protection.
Most people who get locked out of their car or home don't have a regular locksmith so they look on the Internet or phone book for a shop that's close by. The person who answers the phone, usually far away, provides a rock-bottom quote for a service call.
"It's a bait and switch," said Sid Rose, owner of Tampa Bay Lock & Key, a legitimate locksmith. "A job we normally would charge $100 for, they'll charge $300 to $400."
Rose and other locksmith shop owners are backing a proposed Hillsborough ordinance that would require locksmiths to be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check. Jackson said he will have a draft ordinance ready in several weeks.
"It's going to cost a little bit to do it but (local locksmiths) think it's worth it," Jackson said. "They know there are cowboys out there doing things that are not really fair and honest to consumers. When they create those kinds of problems it makes them all look bad."
Before he was notified about Hagan's suspicious mail, Jackson had been investigating similar complaints from Sun City Center residents. He had checked half a dozen locksmith addresses in a phone book and none was legitimate.
The people behind the bogus addresses and boiler room phone banks are often criminals who send people in the country illegally to make the service calls, said Steve Wyman, president of the Florida West Coast Locksmith Association.
In 2011, the U.S. government indicted three men connected to a company called Dependable Locks in Clearwater. The three were charged with multiple fraud offenses and harboring illegal aliens.
According to the indictments, the three purchased directory listings and advertisements in cities across the country that identified businesses as local locksmith companies. The company used multiple business names, local phone numbers and fake local addresses that had no affiliation with the company, the indictment said.
The indictments were later dismissed at the request of the government because one defendant had fled the country, another was never arrested and the third had played a lesser role in the scam.
Wyman said legitimate locksmiths have been dealing with the scam problem for 10 years. During that time, he's heard a number of stories from victims. One customer told of a so-called "locksmith technician" using a hammer to rip a deadbolt lock off a door and charging $300 to do it.
In another case, a woman told Wyman that when a technician came to open her car, he said the charge would be $200. She didn't have the money so she paid him $70 for making the trip even though he never opened the door.
"Most people locked out who get ripped off for $100, it's not enough for them to scream," Wyman said. "They think, 'I should have been brighter when I called these people,' and they lick their wounds."
Like Hagan, Wyman has personal experience with the scam. The operators chose the address of his business, Plant City Lock & Key, and changed a few digits of the street number to confuse people.
When a locked-out customer did an Internet search for a Plant City locksmith, the bogus address would come up. After the bait and switch, the victims came to Wyman to complain.
"They were extremely aggravated when they come in and think it's us," he said.
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