Indiana hit hard by locksmith price scheme

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — When Steve Kline learned one of his employees was locked out of her car, he looked online to find her help.

"I found a locksmith company that said it could do the job for $20," said Kline, who owns a property management company in Indianapolis. "I said 'Can you be there quickly?' They said 'Yeah, no problem. We'll be there any minute.' So I thought we were all set."

But neither of those claims was true.

"Any minute" turned out to be well over an hour. And the locksmith who showed up charged nearly ten times what Kline had expected.

"They wanted $189," Kline recalls, still in disbelief. "It took him two minutes to pop the lock. Something like that is just a plain rip off."

Kline's experience is common -- very common.

An Eyewitness News undercover investigation shows a growing number of locksmiths operating in Indiana use deceptive tactics to price gouge customers who are locked out of their vehicles. Consumer advocates say the tactics, most often deployed by out-of-state or multi-national companies posing as local locksmiths, are designed to confuse customers and to win business away from local companies that charge far more reasonable rates.

Going undercover

If you get locked out of your car or your home, you'll likely find yourself searching the internet to find a nearby locksmith to come to your rescue.

That's what 13 Investigates did, and we found many companies promoting $15 or $20 rates online.

Local. Fast. Cheap. Exactly what we were looking for in a locksmith.

But would we find those claims to hold true during our undercover test?

The test, conducted over the past two months, included ten locksmith companies doing business in central Indiana that advertise low rates.

Ten WTHR employees parked their cars in different locations around the metro area and then locked their keys inside.

Locksmiths were contacted, and each estimated wait time and price quote was recorded.

Then it was time to wait and watch with several hidden cameras nearby.

What 13 Investigates caught on camera serves as a warning to consumers, and it exposes secrets that many locksmiths do not want you to know.

Secret #1: Low rates too good to be true

“It's not illegal, but it's a bait and switch”

Looking for a locksmith to unlock your car for $20? Good luck. WTHR discovered such a locksmith does not exist.

The $15 and $20 rates advertised online cover only the service charge – the cost you'll pay to get a locksmith to drive to your location and look at your car. The low advertised rate does not cover a "labor charge" to actually unlock your car.

Those important details are actually included in fine print on some of the locksmith websites. And if asked directly, many dispatchers acknowledged that the advertised fee applied only to the trip charge.

"The $15 is a service charge to get the locksmith to you," said one of the dispatchers. "Then there's a labor fee that starts at $35."

Other dispatchers were less forthcoming.

"Yes, it's $20 and you can pay that when my technician gets there. Some cars do cost extra," said a call center representative.

Another dispatcher would not discuss price at all.

"I'm not sure, sweetie. I do know they have a device to make sure you get the cheapest rate possible," the dispatcher said.

One by one, as locksmiths arrived and provided the actual rates, it became clear that the total bill would not be anywhere close to $20.

"It's $20 for the service call, and then $99.99 for the lockout," said one locksmith in downtown Indianapolis.

"I can do it for $120," explained another in Whitestown.

"It's $129," a third locksmith told a WTHR producer near Southport.

Other locksmiths said their total charge for unlocking our car would be $140, $155, even as high as $190.

"I usually charge $200," a locksmith told us on undercover camera. "But for you, I'll do it for $125 cash, $150 credit."

All of the companies that advertised $15 or $20 rates provided WTHR employees with on-scene estimates that exceeded $119.

"It's not illegal, but it's a bait and switch," a whistleblower told 13 Investigates.

"Ripping people off on a daily basis"

The whistleblower who spoke to WTHR used to work for a foreign-based locksmith company that operates in Indiana. He does not want you to know his identity for fear of retaliation, but he does want to you to know about the tricks that locksmith companies play on their customers.

"When we would get there, we were instructed to look at their clothes, their watch, their car, their house, and charge as much as you possibly can," he told Eyewitness News. "If it was in Carmel, just go for the throat. Get as much as you literally can… They told us that consumers know nothing about locks, you know, and to just kind of BS them into whatever you gotta do to get as much as you can out them."

He left the locksmith company because of a guilty conscience.

"I felt like I was scamming people," the whistleblower explained. "I felt I was ripping people off on a daily basis. More or less, I was preying on people's desperation. I just felt uncomfortable lying."

He said the locksmith company he worked for had an out-of-state call center on the East Coast that forwarded lockout calls to contracted employees (like him) in Indiana. Those contractors paid a fee for each referral, and could then charge the customer any amount they liked. The higher the charge, the higher the profit.

"They trained us to be really smooth talkers. [We could] rip you out of your money and almost make you enjoy it," the whistleblower told WTHR. "There's no reason you should ever pay [over $100] for a lockout."

Secret #2: The sales pitch

Locksmiths who charge inflated rates will have a polished sales pitch to justify their estimate. That sales pitch – delivered frequently to WTHR's undercover employees – is designed to convince you that your car has a sophisticated or difficult locking system and, therefore, incurs a more expensive labor charge. No matter what make, model and year car you drive, you'll likely hear a story like this:

"This kind of car I cannot open it with a Slim Jim. If I try to open it with a Slim Jim, I can break the lock, so the only way to open it is to come from the top, from the door," a locksmith told us about a 2010 Kia Soul.

"If we try to open it with a Slim Jim, it's probably going to damage the lock here. We can't use it. But I have another way to open it from the side without damage to the car, but it's $129," another locksmith said about our 2006 Mazda 6.

The locksmiths are correct. An old-fashioned Slim Jim tool, commonly used by locksmiths to manipulate locks on cars manufactured in the 1980s, could damage a car that has newer technology and anti-theft devices.

But most locksmiths stopped using Slim Jims years ago in favor of other tools that are quicker, easier and safer to use.

An air wedge is now the preferred access tool of most locksmiths who are unlocking car doors, and it (along with a reach tool) is the only tool that locksmiths used to unlock car doors during WTHR's test.

One locksmith explained that our 2001 Honda Civic would cost $119 to unlock because it was built after 1996 and, therefore, he could not use a Slim Jim to open it. He said he would be required to use an air wedge instead, justifying a significant increase in his labor charge.

So on another day, WTHR called the same locksmith company to unlock a car that was built before 1996. The same locksmith arrived at our location and informed us that unlocking our 1991 Honda Accord would cost (you guessed it) $119.

Asked why he would charge so much for an older car with a more basic locking mechanism that could be opened with a Slim Jim, the locksmith admitted "It's just the rates, ma'am. We don't use Slim Jims. We don't even use Slim Jims anymore."

"There definitely shouldn't be an extra cost incurred for using an air wedge," said Dave Carrington, an automation engineer who now works for Pop-A-Lock in Indianapolis. "It's absolutely one of the easiest ways to get in. If you're charged more for an air wedge, it's just a ploy to extract more money."

Secret #3: Not so fast

“Always keep them thinking you're right down the road”

Nearly every time a WTHR employee called for a locksmith, a dispatcher told us a technician would arrive within 20 minutes.

Frequently, our wait was at least double or triple what we were told.

On some occasions, we waited at least 90 minutes & the locksmith never showed up at all.

While waiting for one of the locksmiths, a dispatcher told WTHR the locksmith was stuck in traffic, then he was in an accident, then he got lost, and finally that he was sent to a different lockout call. We were told the company could send the locksmith to our car the following day (18 hours later) if we could wait that long.

"They said it would be 20 minutes, but it was at least an hour and 20 minutes before he got to me," said Rebecca Jolly, who needed a locksmith this winter. "And then he blocked me in and wouldn't let me leave until he got paid, so I had to wait another 30 minutes for that."

The delays and wait times do not come as a surprise to WTHR's whistleblower.

"We're supposed to always tell them we'll be there in 20 minutes. Whether they're in Shelbyville and we're an hour away, doesn't matter. Tell them 20 minutes. Tell them you were stuck in traffic. You had a flat tire," the longtime locksmith told WTHR. "Always keep them thinking you're right down the road. You're gonna be there any minute, even if you know you're an hour away."

The vast majority of locksmith companies advertising super-low prices in Indiana are not "just down the road." Not even close.

Secret #4: It's a local locksmith (only 2,327 miles away)

The companies investigated by WTHR list local addresses, but 13 Investigates tracked them down and discovered most of those addresses are not legitimate.

Take, for example, the A1 Locksmith group, which includes more than a dozen "local" locksmiths around central Indiana.

"They've been using our address and even our name for years, and I just don't know what we can do," said Broad Ripple Lock co-owner Liz Smith. "They actually tell people they're Broad Ripple Lock, and then people get scammed and they get mad at us. It's just wild."

A company spokesman for A1 Locksmith told WTHR his company does not have an addresses in Indiana and that A1 Locksmith operates only a mobile service. He could not explain why the company has multiple addresses that are not legitimate.

America's Locksmith Services, one of the first companies you'll find during an online search, is based in Norcross, Georgia, while All Indianapolis Locksmith lists its operations center in Brooklyn, New York.

Locksmith Indy shows its address at an office building in downtown Indianapolis where a company offers rented office space. A receptionist at that company told WTHR that Locksmith Indy used to be a "virtual client" but never had an actual office there.

Other companies, like Pro Locksmith, will not identify their location. Pro Locksmith advertises "We're Local and We'll Beat Any Price," but when asked where they are located, a call center dispatcher replied "Where are you?" Informed we are located in Indianapolis, the dispatcher said "That's where we are: in Indianapolis." When asked for more details about the location of the call center, the dispatcher said "We're a mobile service," and then hung up.

Why are many locksmith companies listing bogus addresses? New rules implemented in recent years by Google require a local address for companies that want premium Google ad placement. A top ad spot in the locksmith category can bring in hundreds of extra customers and thousands of extra dollars. By appearing to be local – in some cases, even stealing the address or name of a competitor – out-of-state companies can better compete against Hoosier locksmiths. In some cases, they have taken away significant business.

"People are being taken advantage of, and I think it's sickening," Carrington said. "Google is letting it happen."

"The reason they're doing what they're doing is because Google allows them to buy their placement," agreed the whistleblower. "They completely have a monopoly on Google ad words and, in my opinion, they solely exist because Google allows them to buy all the top spots."

Google told 13 Investigates late Monday afternoon that it will investigate address inconsistencies identified by WTHR.

No place like home

“We don't play games like the internet companies do”

The first locksmith you find online is not necessarily the best.

WTHR tested local locksmith companies the same way we tested their out-of-state competitors: with undercover sales calls recorded on hidden camera to determine prices, response time and tactics.

While all out-of-state locksmith companies tested by WTHR engaged in up-charging, locally-based locksmith companies did not. The local companies contacted by Eyewitness News did not promote an attractive $20 rate to get our attention, but their final cost was much lower than what we found elsewhere.

The local Indianapolis office of national locksmith service provider Pop-A-Lock provided a bottom-line price over the phone.

"Looks like it's going to be a guaranteed price of $49.95," the Pop-A-Lock dispatcher explained when a WTHR undercover producer called for service. The locksmith arrived within 20 minutes, then proceeded to unlock our Mazda 6 with an air wedge and reach tool. That process took 28 seconds. The final price was the same $49.95 that was originally quoted.

Just a few minutes earlier, a locksmith contracted by an out-of-state company tried to charge WTHR $129 for the exact same job.

"Whatever we quote you is what we charge you. We don't jack up the price," the Pop-A-Lock technician said.

Broad Ripple Lock offered an up-front price of $60 for its car lockout service.

Indianapolis-based Unlock Indy quoted a price of $69 over the phone, and the final bill was the same.

"We don't play games like the internet companies do," said Unlock Indy owner Kory Jensen. "It's just a huge scam they've got going. Anywhere in the country, if you call the top numbers that come up, they farm those jobs out to contractors who tell you one price, and then they come out and charge you whatever they can. People pay it because they feel they don't have options."

During WTHR's test, the average lockout price quoted by locally-based locksmith companies ($59.65) was less than half the cost quoted by their out-of-state counterparts ($130.44). And the local locksmiths' average response time (26 minutes) was nearly twice as fast as the response time of non-local companies (49 minutes).

How to spot signs of trouble

Rule number one when selecting a locksmith: if you cannot get an up-front, locked-in, bottom-line, guaranteed price over the phone, keep looking. In our test of more than a dozen Indiana locksmith companies, those companies that told us they needed to see what kind of car we drove and assess our situation on-site before they could give a final price always charged more than companies that provided a set price up front. Watch out for catch phrases like "labor fee starting at…" or "We'll beat any price."

Be suspicious of any locksmith that advertises $15 or $20 fees. That's most likely a teaser rate that covers only the trip charge, not the labor to get you back into your car.

Ask if the company has marked vehicles and if their employees wear marked shirts and/or uniforms. That will often weed out out-of-state companies that hire independent contractors who are encouraged to charge higher fees.

Find out if the company has an actual office. If so, ask for the address and look it up to see if it a real place of business or an empty cornfield. If the company does not have an actual office or says it is a "mobile-only" locksmith, that does not necessarily mean it is not a legitimate local company. But a "mobile-only" locksmith who will not offer an up-front guaranteed price is almost a sure sign of being overcharged.

There is likely no reason you'd need to spend more than $75 to get into your locked car. Several locksmiths in central Indiana such as Pop-A-Lock, Broad Ripple Lock and Unlock Indy will provide vehicle lock-out service for an up-front fee of $69 or below. In the metro area, there's little justification for spending $100 or more, which is the going labor rate for out-of-state companies that contract out their locksmith calls.

Perhaps most important, find a trusted locksmith BEFORE you need one. Do your research now to find a well-rated company that offers reasonable, up-front pricing, and save the company's phone number. When you are locked out of your car or home late at night, that is not the time to begin researching a legit locksmith.

"Because the consumer is in a tight spot and needs the service right then and there, this puts the locksmith in a powerful position to overcharge," explained Molly Gillaspie, public information officer at the Indiana Attorney General's office. "The Attorney General's Office recommends that consumers who need locksmith services opt for a well-established, brick-and-mortar locksmith company in their community… A brick-and-mortar company is likely to be more reliable and responsive to consumer feedback, rather than a national locksmith locator that has no real ties to the community. The AG's Office also recommends people get a signed contract with the locksmith reflecting the price before any services are performed."

The advice applies not only for customers who are locked out of their cars, but also for those who are locked out of their homes and businesses.

"There's a lot of abuse there, too. Maybe even more," the whistleblower told WTHR. "Most of the locksmiths out there now don't even know how to pick a lock, so they’ll just drill it out instead. Then they'll put a $35 knock-off lock on the door and charge $300 for it. It's ridiculous."

One last warning sign to consider as you research locksmiths is a website that includes poorly-written information that simply makes no sense. For some examples (and some laughs), check out websites such as Locksmith Zionsville or any of the A1 Locksmith links mentioned above, such as A1 Locksmith Plainfield or A1 Locksmith Noblesville.

How to turn the tables

If you do find yourself face-to-face with a locksmith who wants to charge an exorbitant fee, simply say "No thank you." You'll be amazed how quickly the fees will drop.

A contracted locksmith reduced his original $155 quote to $100, then $80, and eventually $60 when a WTHR employee repeatedly said the price sounded too high. He said the $60 fee must be paid "under the table" because he'd get in trouble with his company for offering such a low price. "If they call you, just tell them I didn't do the job," he said.

Another locksmith gradually lowered his price from $134 to $119, $95, $75, $65 and $50 rather than drive away with only a $15 service fee.

Because independent contractors are under pressure to seal each deal and to get your business, they don't want to leave empty handed – especially if they have already driven across town to meet you. If a dispatcher disclosed the service fee was non-refundable when you asked for the lockout service, you may be on the hook for a $15 or $20 charge, regardless if the lockout service is performed or not. But a contracted locksmith would much prefer to negotiate a lower fee that's half his inflated quote (say, $70 instead of $140) than leave with only a $20 trip charge. After all, the job will take less than two minutes for most minimally-trained locksmiths to unlock your car with an air wedge and reach tool.

If you agree to an up-front fee on the phone, honor the agreement and the price. Don't stand up a locksmith who offered a reasonable price to get you out of a bad situation. These folks are, after all, trying to earn a living.

Even if the service fee is not clearly explained at the beginning, some locksmiths will expect their money anyway.

"I told him I'd call him back if I needed him, but he came anyway, and then he started to threaten me when I told him I had already found another locksmith," recalls Avon resident Megan Russell. She had a run-in with an out-of-state locksmith service in December after locking her keys in her car at work. "He was yelling and screaming and cussing me out. He said he was going to sue me and was going to have the police come. It was a terrible experience."

During the WTHR test, Channel 13 employees turned away several locksmiths who attempted to charge very high labor fees, but always paid the minimum service fee discussed on the phone.

Secret #5: Overcharging locksmiths are camera shy

WTHR contacted out-of-state locksmith companies and their Indiana contractors to better understand why they charge higher rates than Indiana-based locksmith companies and do not provide an up-front guaranteed price quote.

Most of the companies and contractors we spoke to hung up or drove off without answering our questions.

Asked about her company's high labor rates, a contractor from America's Locksmith Services replied with questions of her own. "Is this an open interview? Would you like me to do a sitdown talk with you?" she said while being questioned at a parking lot in Whitestown.

"Let's talk right now," responded WTHR senior investigative reporter Bob Segall.

"No. If you're going to put this on the national news, I'm going to do my makeup," replied the locksmith, who did not identify herself.

Segall gave the locksmith his contact information, but has not yet received a return phone call about the sitdown talk she proposed.

A phone call to the Georgia-based headquarters of America's Locksmith Services did not provide any answers, either. A manager who identified himself only as Michael said WTHR would hear from his attorney.

When approached by WTHR, a contractor for Locksmith Indy got into his pickup truck and drove off without answering any questions.

A company representative called a short time later to speak with 13 Investigates.

"At the end of the day, the standard lockout rate is $120. We never charge over $129.99 and we usually waive the service fee," explained Brandy Cook, who identified herself as an area manager for Locksmith Indy. "If there's someone who only has $50, we'll do it for $50. I'm not trying to get someone's paycheck to get them into their car. I don't do that," she added.

Asked specifically if Locksmith Indy would provide a guaranteed, up-front $49.95 lockout fee like one of its Indianapolis competitors, Cook said "Every day. All day. I will match any competitor."

But if the company is so willing to offer that rate during a conversation with WTHR, why does it not offer that rate directly to customers who need lockout service?

"We don't give prices over the phone. If you think pricing over the phone is better, that's your opinion," she said. "We don't give a flat rate because when we get out there and find there's a missing door handle, then my technicians are upset with me because that's a lot more work."

Asked how frequently locksmith technicians are called to help a customer whose car has no door handles, Cook told WTHR she was not sure about the numbers, but pointed out "it does happen."

"It's a really hard business because there's a lot of competition and a lot of my competitors out there are just out to rob people. A lot of them are evil," said Cook, specifically mentioning Israeli-based locksmith companies that now have heavy presence in markets across the country, including Indiana. "They have taken over Indiana, and they pay a lot of money for advertising. That's why every time someone calls us, we pay $30 to Google -- whether you use us or not. At the end of the day, we just want our customers to be happy. It shouldn't cost $200 to unlock a car. I won't charge that."