March 02--When Laura Thompson thumbed through the latest edition of Yellow Pages, she noticed the locksmiths section had more than tripled in size since last year.
The section that once held about seven local locksmith companies in the Spartanburg area now had about 30, each with their own business name, address and phone number -- and the same trend was found online through a basic web search.
Thompson, whose husband owns Ellis Repair Service on John B. White Sr. Boulevard in Spartanburg, represents one of a number of community stakeholders vying to put an end to what they call "locksmithing scams" that threaten the safety of consumers in dire times of need.
The apparent growth in the local locksmith industry stems from out-of-state companies or persons advertising companies that appear to be locally based with local numbers and addresses, but are actually out-of-state call centers that use a database of hired technicians to respond to service requests.
For example, "24X7 Locksmith SC" is listed as being at 1530 W. Washington St. in Greenville, but the location is actually home to a junkyard for Dixie Iron and Metal Co.
Papa's Locksmith, listed at 312 Village Creek Drive in Boiling Springs, is actually a shopping center salon business called Traffic Salon & Spa.
An employee at Traffic Salon and Spa said he had no knowledge of any locksmith business at their location and said their salon business has been at 312 Village Creek Drive for about four years.
A Dixie Iron and Metal Co. employee said he received a letter in their company mailbox but it was addressed to 24X7 Locksmith SC, of which he had never heard.
"I don't know where they are. It says 1530 West Washington Street, but they're not here. We've had this address for 60 years," said Pete George.
The listings' numbers, like several others listed as local locksmiths, go to the same call center in California.
"The reason they don't have actual locations is to avoid complaints, so they just flood phonebooks and search engines," Thompson said.
The discovery has left local locksmiths, lawmakers and law enforcement officials seeking solutions.
"If you're tech savvy and work the Internet, you can drop in on Google Maps and open a pseudo company that doesn't exist and hire a couple of thugs that know nothing," Carolina Locksmiths owner Tony Waldrop said of price gouging and swindling.
Carolina Locksmiths is a longstanding locksmith company off of Wade Hampton Boulevard.
Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt said he was not aware of the trend until Thompson voiced concerns at a February county council meeting and called upon the council to adopt an ordinance that requires those practicing locksmithing to hold locksmith licenses.
"We have a tremendous responsibility to protect our citizens. It's a serious problem," Britt said.
He plans to speak with Spartanburg County Sheriff Chuck Wright to get a law enforcement perspective on potential county ordinances that could instate locksmith license requirements, he said.
"The message to out-of-state folks causing a threat to our citizens is: don't mess with us," he said. "We're in the business of protecting our citizens and making sure Spartanburg is the best place to live."
Trent Henderson of Mayo owns a Pop-A-Lock franchise. He said he knows the problem exists and many of the out-of-state companies that dispatch local workers will quote one price and then triple or quadruple the charge once on scene.
"We all want to get quoted a low price, that's the worst thing. They tell you to unlock a car or house it's $19.95, but then they jack up the price on you and say it's $100 to unlock your car," he said.
Henderson said he charges between $40 and $55 to unlock cars, and the price estimates are explained to the consumer up front.
Henderson said reputable locksmiths' employees have been thoroughly vetted and can be trusted because they work with company owners directly.
Many brick-and-mortar locksmith companies also tout certifications through associations such as the Associated Locksmiths of America, which requires criminal background checks.
"Just because they have an ad, that doesn't matter. Anybody can buy an ad," Henderson said.
A man who answered calls made to several new locksmith listings stated he was a manager for each but declined to give his name.
Asked if the dispatchers they worked with have business licenses or certifications for locksmithing, the manager said, "We meet all licensing that's required."
South Carolina and Spartanburg County do not have laws requiring locksmiths to have licenses to work in the industry.
"Well what a coincidence," the manager said in a telephone interview.
The man declined to explain why some locksmith companies listed were not actually located at the listed addresses.
"It sounds like you're easily confused," he said.
Each of the locally owned locksmith companies voiced frustration with the growing trend of locksmith swindling, while the unidentified manager disagreed.
"What exactly is an illegitimate locksmith? ... No issues that we're seeing," he said.
Liad Messinger, founder and CEO of California-based L&L Services Inc., said he was behind the lead service company that runs a call center and dispatches local technicians.
"Unfortunately, everybody has a different definition of legit and scam," he said.
He defended the business model and said it was a part of advertising and that his company was helping those locked out of their homes and vehicles by providing a wide network of technicians that can be dispatched during times of emergency.
"Local guys with mom-and-pop shops, I can relate to that; however, things change. It's the same when Wal-Mart comes to town. If you don't adapt, you go out of business," he said.
He said his technicians do not price gouge, and the call-takers that answer calls made to several different listed companies do not provide customers with exact costs and leave final estimates up to the responder.
"There's no such thing as exaggerating prices," Messinger said, adding that if he receives information that particular technicians are price gouging, he will stop working with them.
Asked about the falsely listed address for 24X7 Locksmiths SC, Messinger said it was an error and later the West Washington Street address on a company website was removed and replaced with "(ASTERISK)Mobile service only address is for for advertising purposes only."
Messinger said some technicians have taken advantage of consumers, hurting the credibility of his business and the locksmithing industry.
"I do know some people that act this way. Now that we're in South Carolina, we'll clean them out and ship them exactly where they came from," he said. "There's more than a few and that's a shame. It is like that in every industry."
"Locksmithing scams" have brought national media attention when the issue has been pointed out in other parts of the U.S.
Thompson and others said it has likely crept into the Upstate after those behind the pseudo local businesses are "figured out" in other larger markets.
The S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs issued a statement in early February alerting the public to "Locksmith Swindlers" that addresses the very issue and adds that the swindlers price gouge the consumer.
Consumer Affairs stated that upon calling "a 'local' locksmith, the consumer received a price quote. Once the locksmith arrives to perform the work, the price goes up substantially. Although feeling slighted, the urgency of this situation often results in the consumer giving in."
Consumer Affairs noted in the statement some "red flags" include the company having no address or using a fake address and the "local" number in the phonebook redirecting callers out-of-state.
The Better Business Bureau also has published notices warning consumers of the dangers of locksmithing swindles.
Some say allowing unvetted employees who represent falsely listed locksmith companies to be dispatched to a person locked out of their home or vehicle is a major public safety risk.
"Locksmiths have access to keypads and locks to get into your homes and cars and have access to all of our possessions that we all work hard for," said Thompson, adding that locksmithing is an industry that requires trusted locksmiths given the nature of the job.
Technicians being dispatched from an out-of-state company may not be required to undergo the background checks and carry the credential requirements that a local establishment might require, local business owners said.
Sheriff Wright said he wants to research the issue before adding another law to the books.
"There are several legitimate businesses that are locally owned that we have no trouble with," he said. "I don't think you should punish the good people with what the bad people are doing."
Wright questioned how and why Yellow Pages has let false companies with false addresses into the directories without being vetted and verified.
"That would stop it right there from the point of attack," Wright said.
A Yellow Pages terms of service agreement reads: "YP will have no obligation to investigate or confirm, and does not in any way endorse, the accuracy, legality, legitimacy, validity, suitability, or reliability of any content directly generated or controlled by Advertiser."
Yellow Pages representatives said the company has specific internal policies and practices in place to vet accuracy and works directly with advertisers for all types of listings. According to Yellow Pages, all paid advertisers warrant that information provided does not violate any law, regulation or industry guideline.
Some locksmiths of brick-and-mortar companies that have served the Spartanburg area for generations say the solution to ending the swindling trend is through education.
Educating the consumer and relying on residents to identify local, loyal locksmiths and only using trusted ones when locked out is key, said Waldrop.
"I don't' know what the solution is, but you can't hardly regulate the Internet. It's up to the consumer and getting the word out," said Waldrop, with Carolina Locksmiths. "Be aware of these companies. They're not local and they're not really like they make you believe."
Copyright 2014 - Herald-Journal, Spartanburg, S.C.