Fighting the Scammer Locksmiths

Nov. 1, 2009
A successful, established New Jersey locksmith finds that his competition is not another local businessman, but an out-of-state phone bank using a name too close for comfort to his company’s name.

Locksmith scammers have become a major pain to the unsuspecting public and the locksmith community. Jim Parker, president of A-1 Safe and Lock in Trenton, N.J., had spoken with Gale Johnson after seeing one of Gale’s articles on that subject. I sat down with Jim in his shop on Sept. 15 to ask his opinion on the scammers and running a successful locksmith business. Following are the Ledger’s questions and Parker’s answers.

How did you and Gale begin talking about the scamming that’s going on?
A couple of years ago Verizon took my name out of the book! Instead of me, they had A1 Locksmith. We’re A1 Safe & Lock. All of a sudden I don’t even have a listing in the book!

So who is A1 Locksmith?
They’re scam artists. When the guy from Verizon showed up to do my ad, I told him I’m not taking an ad out because he’s my competitor. Who the heck is this A1 Locksmith? I went down to check the address they showed and it was a big Verizon building.
You’d think it would get the phone company’s attention when someone uses their address, wouldn’t you? I heard that happened in Missouri; they used an AT&T address.
The Yellow Pages were sued and there’s an injunction against AT&T and they had to shut off the cell phones of the scam artists.
Close to here, I could show you 52 addresses that are being used, medical centers, shopping centers, clothing stores within seven miles of my shop. There’s a guy here a mile away who calls himself Highway 73 locksmith. I call him and ask for Highway 73 locksmith and he tells me they’re now called Bob’s Locksmith. I go down there and knock on the door and they tell me it’s a bakery shop. They’ve got two unmarked white vans and a car with sheets across the glass so you can’t see inside and he hollers out the window that it’s a bakery. They’re working out of a closed building and probably sleeping on the floors.

What was the response from the phone book people when you first brought it up?
At first I figured it was just a fluke; the phone guy tells me he’s never heard of such a thing. He goes down there and tells me something’s funny because there are three different companies using the same number for A1 Locksmith. He actually told me he had no idea what was going on. I told him he couldn’t be in this business and not know about it. All he cared about was his commission. It’s estimated that people are being ripped off for more than $400 million a year!

What kind of things are going on? How are people being taken advantage of?
We have a good customer who’s been using us for almost 30 years. One day she comes into the shop crying. She’s a senior citizen who needed her Medeco lock rekeyed and told me a man came out and charged her $300 to change one cylinder. On the phone he told her $35 and then said it was high security and would be much more. For $300 he gave her one key. She needed three more keys and he told her that would be another $300.
Another one I heard about is the Air Jack for the windows on car lockouts. They tell people it’s so expensive because the Air Jack has to be replaced every two weeks for $400.
A guy in New York charged someone $800 to open a lock on a glass door. He told the customer it was special high security and he drilled it; they don’t pick anything. It’s a Kwikset and they tell him it’s high security.
A TV station here got someone on film drilling out Kwikset locks after claiming they were high security. It turned out the door wasn’t even locked. He drilled out the locks and never tried the door!

How long have you been working as a locksmith?
All my life. I’ll be 66; it’s been a family business for five generations. Of my five brothers, four of them are locksmiths. We have a shop down in Georgia. Many of my grandkids and nephews are locksmiths.

Today we hear about the scammers and their scams on a daily basis. What were the scams you heard about in the old days? Were there any?
Just as I’m insulted by what these guys are doing to a professional field like ours, you didn’t have it back then. If you were a locksmith you were a professional. Not only aren’t these guys locksmiths, they are  not even U.S. citizens.
Since the states have done nothing, ALOA has finally gotten the federal people involved since all of the phone banks are out of state from the ones they operate in. Now they’re going after them for interstate crimes.
You know what New Jersey’s done in the last seven years, absolutely nothing! They passed Senate action 1207; before you sell a car owned by the state you must have the ignition and door locks changed. Here’s a good one. Action #3558, provides that only locksmiths or the dealer may program transponder keys. I could take you around the corner to Home Depot where they do transponder keys. (Jim’s cell phone rings; it’s his locksmith brother in Georgia).

Is Georgia having the same problem with the scammers?
Across the whole country. It started out west and moved across to Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, all your major cities. When it was allowed to happen, then it spread all over. Back to this law about transponder keys, I could take you to the hardware store around the corner and get it done, so what good is the law? We have to go through all the expense and time to have our license visible.
In my phone book ad I spent $10,000 on full page color ads that say “Don’t be ripped off by phony locksmiths.” We’re the only ones who can put that in our ad because we’re the only ones here.

Why are locksmiths the target of the scammers?
It’s happening because the public is uninformed; they get in trouble and need help quickly.  It’s easy pickings. They open a car and they’re gone. There’s nothing on the trucks, no names, no receipts. Sometimes it’s just a car they’re in.
A few years ago a doctor customer who was using us for a long time needed us and didn’t have her rolodex so she called information for A1. She got a guy who had her thinking he was us. She asked for Tony and they said Tony had a medical problem. When they didn’t show up, she found our number and called us asking why we weren’t there yet and of course we had no idea what she was talking about. This guy said he was us, flat-out lied about everything. I called who she called and asked what they were doing using my name. She tells me that the boss says they’re under 80 different names and I just assumed that was us she was asking for.
(Steve Kaufman:) Sometimes it’s a taxi. I heard one about an older woman who called a locksmith on a Sunday afternoon from Cherry Hill, N.J. The latch on what turned out to be a Kwikset entry knob was malfunctioning and the guy she called said he’d be there in three hours. Three hours later he showed up in a taxi cab with NY license plates. He got out with a drill and a tool box and then explained he didn’t have the part needed. He still asked her for $300 for coming and she paid it! When asked why she paid, she explained she was intimidated, scared of the guy.

This seems to be a tough battle for the locksmith community. How do we win here?
When I first started years ago I couldn’t get in using A1 Lock. At the time they had principles and they wouldn’t put me ahead of everyone else just because I was A1. It took 11 weeks to put together the all the right documents proving this was a family business started down in Georgia. That was in the early 70s. There were no laws but the phone book people had principles. Now it’s take the money and run.

My understanding is that there’s an enormous amount of money being spent by the scammers with the phone books. Does that make it difficult to stop?
You can’t pick up a book anywhere without them in it. One of the things I like to say in my ads is that we’re “Locally owned and operated.” Now the scammers are saying it in their ads; “Locally owned and operated service within 15 minutes, $29.00.” They use an 800 number that I called and was referred to a number in Detroit, Mich.

Are you required to take classes to keep your license even though you’re such an established business?
Early on we attended many ALOA conventions and received all kinds of certifications. We did it to update our knowledge about products, to become better locksmiths. When licensing began in New Jersey, we didn’t have to, we were grandfathered in. Then we started getting calls from a salesperson for one of the schools that have the CEU classes. I asked what he was going to teach me, impressioning, key identification, and key machines? I told him I’ve been doing this for 60 years and he told me he was just a salesman selling the class and that it would be a shame if I let all these years be worthless by not renewing my license.

The scammers aren’t paying taxes or other fees like the rest of us, are they?
That’s right; it’s the legitimate professional who is being victimized. We help run these office buildings; we pay payroll taxes, state taxes, federal taxes…..we pay everything! We’re paying through the nose. These guys here don’t pay a dime. With hardly any overhead, they have a phone bank someplace and all they do is drill and replace and pay nothing because it’s cash only.

Do you talk to your customers and make sure they know what’s going on?
Didn’t you see the signs on the wall? I spent so much money on ads just to protect the people. I’m thinking about going out to retirement centers to give talks and pass out flyers to protect the senior citizens. They come in here crying while they tell me what happened.

What can we do here in New Jersey? What would you do if you were in charge of it all?
Like they’re doing in Las Vegas, run sting operations. Get them to come to the job and arrest them. The problem is that these guys make so much money that the states can’t afford to fight them. The typical fine when they get caught is $1,000. The states going to spend a heck of a lot more than $1,000 to collect; it’s nothing to these people. We have to up raise the fine to $10,000 each time and let the municipality and the state split it. The municipalities are broke; this way they’d be motivated to make some money.
I’ve been in contact with NJ State Sen. Bill Baroni and I’m told this matter will be discussed in front of the State Assembly. It seems like the states are finally filing law suits against the Yellow Pages and phone company. We’ve got to support the folks who are leading the fight. Tim McMullen of ALOA and Larry of are two people who need our support. We’ve all got to stand up, fight and join with the people who are doing this for us all.