OLIVE BRANCH, MS (WMC) - Need a locksmith? Don't just Google for one.
Cathryn Bankhead did, and it led her -- and us -- down the trail of a locksmith impostor network that legitimate locksmiths say is a nationwide issue.
Bankhead Googled the words "Olive Branch locksmith" when she needed to re-key six locks on her rental property. Up popped OliveBranchLocksmith.com with a 662 area code dispatch number.
Remember that number and website. Because you'll soon learn that neither is originating from the 662.
She said the dispatcher quoted her a total job price of $114. The locksmith arrived in an unmarked vehicle. Bankhead said after the work was done, the locksmith told her he was ready to swipe her credit card.
"We argued," Bankhead said. "We agreed to settle at $300." That's when she said he went ahead and swiped her credit card.
"I freaked out," she said. "I told him I'm calling his dispatch and my credit card company to dispute the charge. As I was on the phone, he fled in his vehicle. When I came back the next morning after arguing with them, the locks magically didn't work with the keys I'd been given."
Given another chance, Bankhead should have taken a closer look at that website. For one, it mistakenly reads "Olive Branch, Tennessee" in its services explanation. Red flag number one.
The dispatch address posted on the site? It's the Olive Branch Kroger store on Goodman Road. Red flag number two.
And that phone number? We traced it to an identity-blocked cell phone in Shelby, Mississippi -- more than 100 miles away. Bankhead's invoice actually lists "24 Hour Locksmith" as the vendor, with a Memphis 901 number. When we called the number, it was disconnected.
Glen Peifer, licensed locksmith/owner of Peifer Safe & Lock in Memphis and board member of the West Tennessee Locksmith Association, said "24 Hour Locksmith" is code for a nationwide network of locksmith impostors. He said they obtain web domains in the names of targeted cities and towns, then set up call centers with spoofed phone numbers made to look like they are originating in those areas.
"It is a nationwide issue," Peifer said. "They recruit these folks who are not locksmiths.They send them out to population centers. They want to quote a low price, and then they have been instructed to actually charge ten times more. The bait-and-switch is by design. When you try to find them, you can't. They're a ghost."
We found them, or at least one of their so-called locksmiths.
We had an undercover producer call the same dispatch number Bankhead called for Olive Branch Locksmith. Our producer asked the dispatcher if a locksmith could be sent to unlock her car in the parking lot of an Olive Branch shopping center.
"We have a $19 service fee for a tech to come out, and to open the door, it's a starting price of $25," the dispatcher said.
But when the locksmith called to give our producer an estimated arrival time, he told her it would be $50 for the service call and $75 for the total job.
"They gave her two different prices. That was the first alarm," said Tony Scott, licensed locksmith and owner of The Lockman locksmith company of Cordova, Tennessee.
The second alarm was when the locksmith showed up. He was in an unmarked utility van with a California license plate. According to motor vehicle records, the tag is registered to Locksmith Emergency Solutions, Inc., 4501 Carlyle Court, Santa Clara, California. California requires locksmiths to carry locksmith licenses and state/local business licenses. The California Department of Consumer Affairs Bureau of Security & Investigative Services confirmed Locksmith Emergency Solutions, Inc., is not a licensed California locksmith. The Santa Clara County Clerk Recorder's Office and the San Jose City Clerk's Office confirmed the company has neither a city nor a county business license.
The locksmith fled the scene when we confronted him on camera. Twice, a dispatcher hung up on us as we attempted to reach someone in charge of "Olive Branch Locksmith." A third time, we left a message to have someone in charge contact us for comment. It was never returned.
Bankhead ended up having to change out all of the locks on her rental property herself at her expense. She successfully disputed the $828 credit card charge and learned her lesson about locksmiths. "Ask for a license, check the Better Business Bureau and get a written quote first," she said.
* Tennessee requires locksmiths and locksmith companies to carry state-issued locksmith licenses. Each employee must carry his or her own license and must be able to show it to a consumer. Consumers can instantly verify those licenses online at the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance License Verification Site. Consumers should also ask to see a Tennessee locksmith's county-issued business license.
* Neither Arkansas nor Mississippi requires a locksmith's license, but each does require locksmiths to carry state or local business licenses. Holding a business license not only indicates the locksmith's compliance with state/local tax laws, but it also is a good indicator the locksmith is likely bonded and insured. Ask the company to verify that, too.
* Verify the locksmith's service history and/or membership with the Better Business Bureau.
* Regardless of license requirements, locksmiths' vehicles should be clearly marked with their company logos. In Tennessee, their vehicles must also be marked with their locksmith license numbers.
* When asking about prices, don't stop with the service charge. Ask for an estimated price of the total job, then ask for any terms or conditions that may increase that price. Ask the locksmith to provide a written copy of the estimate.
* Ask for the locksmith's physical address or the physical address of its dispatch center. Verify it. If the locksmith company won't provide a physical address that is verifiable, don't hire it.
* If you call a locksmith for an automotive emergency, the locksmith should ask for your identification at the scene in order to determine you are the consumer who ordered the service and to confirm the vehicle is yours.
* If it's not an emergency, get total job estimates from at least three licensed/credentialed locksmiths. If an estimate is very low, confirm that it covers all fees and charges, including a service call fee, labor, replacement parts, mileage fees, night/emergency call fees, fuel surcharges or tool usage fees. Again, get that estimate in writing.
* Be wary of a locksmith who insists on drilling the lock to open it. Most locksmiths have the skills or tools to open virtually any lock.
* Demand an invoice. You can't dispute a charge without proof of payment. Insist on an itemized invoice that includes parts, labor, mileage and service charges. The invoice should also include the business name and address.
* Ask if the locksmith is insured. If your property becomes damaged during a repair, insurance is important to cover your losses.
* Use a safe payment method. Use your credit card to pay for locksmith services for added security. Credit cards carry the most protection should you need to dispute the charge.